No, the government isn't dumping Office, but it does want to start seeing other people

No, the government isn't dumping Office, but it does want to start seeing other people

Summary: Microsoft may not be the number one choice for UK government in the years to come, but it will take time for government to switch to a broader range of software.


Microsoft's Office software has been the mainstay of UK government for years, but that could be about to change.

A senior UK government minister today spoke of measures to "break open Whitehall's lock-in to proprietary formats" so the administration could start using a much broader range of applications.

If UK government were to end its reliance on Microsoft products, which is how the comments are being interpreted, it would have far-reaching consequences for the Redmond-based software giant.

Beyond the loss of revenue from Whitehall, the UK government sector has reportedly spent £200m on Microsoft Office since 2010, any large-scale switch could shrink demand for Office among the general public and government workers.

For years government departments have expected people who interact with them to use Microsoft products. Even for unavoidable tasks, such as paying taxes, there has been the assumption that Microsoft software would be used, as seen by the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet the UK tax authority HM Revenue and Customs provides as a template for a tax return.

In a speech at a conference in London today, UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude signalled the government wants to move away from tying government staff or taxpayers to any one piece of software or technology.

"The software we use in government is still supplied by just a few large companies. A tiny oligopoly dominates the marketplace," he said.

"I want to see a greater range of software used, so civil servants have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular brand of software.

"In the first instance, this will help departments to do something as simple as share documents with each other more easily. But it will also make it easier for the public to use and share government information."

The government is a long way from ditching Microsoft Office in favour of an open source alternative, but is is laying the groundwork to allow such a shift to take place.

At the end of last year the government revealed the first open standards that departments will be required to use when swapping electronic information.

These standards are designed to ensure government and the people it communicates with are not forced to use a particular proprietary technology. Government is currently consulting on which document formats should be mandated when it shares information with the public. Standards being considered are pdf, txt, doc, odt, xlsx, odp and html.

"Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution," Maude said.

"But be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open Whitehall's lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn we will open the door for a host of other software providers."

Mark Taylor, CEO of open source software services company Sirius and former chairman of the Cabinet Office's new suppliers to government working group, described the drive to set open standards as an attempt to rebalance the playing field so other software vendors could get a foothold in UK government bodies.

"The Cabinet Office can't force the rest of government to ditch Microsoft Office and adopt Open Office and LibreOffice," he said.

"It's more about mandating the use of open document standards and letting the market sort itself out."

For some time the Cabinet Office has made documents available online in odf and pdf formats, as well as Word documents.

"I suspect that will end up being the default practice across government, that they will insist on using genuinely open office formats that can be run outside of Microsoft Office," Taylor said.

Various central government departments have also been trialling the use of open source OpenOffice and LibreOffice suites for a while, and open source operating systems are in use at various public sector bodies, including the Met Office and Government Digital Service.

For the government to get even this far on implementing open standards has been a battle, as it has fought against lobbying and opposition from large software companies and industry bodies.

But it will likely be years before any large-scale move away from Microsoft Office by UK government, due to departments relying on countless documents stored in proprietary Office formats and macros designed for Word and Excel, Taylor said.

"I don't think you could get government departments shifting off Microsoft Office overnight, lock-in is lock-in and they have been locked in. It is a multi-year proposition," he said. However, he added that the sort of challenges that would be faced are not insurmountable.

"The world faced this problem once before, with a generation moving from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word.

"The truth is that different generations of proprietary software have faced the same challenge, going from Office 95 to Office 2003 there were formatting errors and challenges in macros. It is a factor in migrating any software."

Different UK administrations have also made strong commitments to upping the use of open-source software for years, to little effect. The latest were guidelines stipulating that open-source software must be the first choice for all new UK government projects, laid down in the Government Service Design Manual last year.

Other government bodies in Europe have successfully moved to open source software, most famously the city of Munich, which recently completed its transition of about 15,000 staff from a Microsoft OS and office suite to open source alternatives, and the French gendarmerie.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said: "Microsoft supports the UK government's drive to reduce IT costs and promote the effective use of information technology to reduce its operating costs everywhere."

Further reading

Topics: Enterprise Software, Government UK, EU, United Kingdom


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Smart Government

    Breaking up with Microsoft benefits everyone - lower cost, higher reliability, and less attacks.

    Go UK!!!
    • Add to that

      lower productivity, higher problems, and less compatibility.

      there's a reason why Office is at the level where it is, and alternatives are at the level they are at.
      • Yes

        And that level has nothing to do with features or compatibility.
        • You keep telling yourself that, itguy10

          and you can claim that at least someone believes what you say. :)
      • Farrel, the world is on a PARTICULAR VERSION of MS Office,

        which stuff like Calibre, Calligra, Libre etc. emulate: MS Office 2003 and prior. Specifically, Word97-2003. Nearly everyone in the legal and accounting sectors of the US use this, as does most of the world. When MS made the catastrophic mistake of introducing the 'ribbon' in 2007, people didn't 'upgrade'. Because, the addins (i.e., we've long been able to do pdf conversion) and customizability of these earlier MS Office products, are better than anything later MS offers.

        Atop that, only these earlier versions can read ALL the prior formats, so if like me you have 30+ years of old legal and accounting records, you need these older programs, to keep the ability to read those records. Original file dates are important, for example, in estate tax and audits, to prove validity.

        And MS knows it. They provide something called 'fileconverters.exe' which allows an earlier MS version to read a later one (i.e., docx in Word 2007 and after).

        Fact is, 2007 and later iterations of MS Office are terrible, and we don't use them. MS could easily fix both this interface and the Windows interface problem by going back to those interfaces, or at least providing a ONE SCREEN SET OF OPTIONS so we can.

        But, they don't. So the meanwhile, in the wake of their horrible interface changes, the Linux world (and WordPerfect, which works on Linux) cashed in. Their interfaces mimic (but not wholly and well) the MS Office standards. So too, their conversions (but again, not wholly and well enough).

        But hey: I bought something like six or eight more copies of MS Office 2002 and 2003 during the past year, each for about $50 or less, at Amazon. Retail copies, not OEMs. They install and register just fine. Then there's MS Works 2006, which for my time and money has the best photo editor and full Word 2002. That program today, costs less than $20.

        So we don't have to move to Linux or open source. And we don't have to buy the latest-and-worst from MS, either.
        • The Ribbon?

          Are you still complaining about that? Get over it! After a slight adjustment, it is far superior to old paradigm that was the drop-down menus. With using the Quick Access Toolbar on which you add the commands that you use the most, the Ribbon then becomes the secondary option for selecting commands, but the Ribbon is there when you need it. Once you click on a command, the dialog boxes themselves have not change as drastically. I despised the time that I had to go back to using Office 2003 when I switched jobs, after having used Office 2007 for a year or so at that point. It was painful and I had to beg the IT department at my new company to get me the upgrade to Office 2007 before everyone else. The newer versions are certainly more powerful. I use a lot of functions and a key one to me is the @IFError function that was introduced with Office 2007. That function alone made Office 2007 better from my perspective. Office 2010 and Office 2013 have only gotten better. I use Office 2010 at work, but I have Office 2013 on a couple of machines at home.
        • Boring!

          Why do you have to write that much for rubbish? All Office products are compatible to each other, even the phone version.

          Can you imagine relying of government documents on online apps!! C'mon! Imagine, they can't process your case because Google is offline or China decided to sniff!
          • open/libre office

            Are relatively compatible with ms word. I use it to write my resume and convert to word. Doesn't have the horrible ribbon either. I am getting used to the ribbon after all these years but have to say it is much less intuitive.
      • Add to that

        Higher productivity, less problems, better compatibility.
        There, fixed for you.

        Now expect a lot of mmoney flowing from Redmond to London officials.
      • You are the one always demanding proof from others

        so how about you provide proof of your statement about lower productivity and higher problems!
      • Clueless

        Its idiots who perpetuate myths like this that cause harm to the tech industry.
    • I have bet my life ZDnet blogger will picked this

      The real news was that they will be looking for other free stuffs to avoid paying £200m a year.

      The fact is, this UK government is highly subscetible to corruption. There is other issue of compatibility that all government bodies enjoyed right now. Crucially, the minister was thinking from his backside for wanting to rely on Google and Open Office made by Chinese, having Snowden revealation in mind!
      • you have a point

        Probably the only reason they did this was because they wanted a bargaining chip with MS to make a more favorable contract with the UK government.
  • Competition is good for everyone...

    Although it may dent MS profits, it will be a stimulus for them to innovate faster.

    Underdogs like my favorite office suites LibreOfice or Apache OpenOffice will get a chance.

    The more people that use ODF, the more they will 'educate' others.
    Some hope for the little guys!
    This will set up a virtuous cycle.

    It is hard to break a monopoly / oligopoly without Govt. legislation / support.

    Abiword, KingSoft office & Kate are also quite nice.
    • Monopoly?

      When you spent billions for years making your product the best, why should you be punished?

      The next thing the silly minister will suggest will be using Android desktop!
      • Android

        That would be completely silly.

        There are 300 other Linuxes to choose from. Android is one of the worst.

        Oh, there's also Windows, but why pay for a malware client?
  • Big stakes, so big fight expected!

    £200 million = $ 331.58 million
    That's a lot of money. So I am expecting a fight undo death!!! ;)

    The question is are the Brits up to the challenge & can they out-maneuver the shills & bribes?
  • Microsoft needs to reform its licensing in a new age

    This is gonna reverberate throughout the UK creating pockets of a domino effect. The thing is, not every business and user will follow suit, which will eventually create interoperability problems. Can Microsoft stem this? Well, they need to do something about it and I believe the best way is to make licensing way more simple, drop the premium it charges, give away Office for little or nothing to non-profits and even some Government institutions such as schools. In this day and age, if you want loyalty, it comes at a cost, sometimes that cost is free.
    • LOL.

      How about simply reducing the development costs for the software, so they can lower prices for the public?

      Would you be willing to take a paycut to lower the cost of your company's product/service?

      Its very easy/naive to simply spout off that a company should simply lower the price they charge for a product/service.

      I'm guessing you don't own a company.

      I'm not saying lower prices could help MS, but lets not be ignorant to think a company can remain an ongoing entity if they simply gave away their product/service.

      MS has stockholders. No one invests in a company that does generate profit or is not long for this world.

      Think McFly, think.
      • a company that does NOT generate profit

        An edit feature would be helpful.

        ~Best wishes