Belgian government chooses OpenDocument

In a blow to Microsoft, Belgium's government departments will be instructed to use an open file format for internal communications
Written by Dominique Deckmyn, Contributor

The OpenDocument Format (ODF) is to be the standard format for exchanging documents within the Belgian government. This proposal, which is expected to be approved by Belgium's Council of Ministers on Friday, increases the pressure from governments worldwide on Microsoft to embrace open standards.

From September 2008 onwards, all document exchanges within the services of the Belgian Government will have to be in an open, standard format, according to the proposal now before the Belgian Ministers. Only ODF is accepted as such a standard in the proposal. Earlier drafts of the Belgian proposal had treated ODF and Microsoft's own Open XML format (which is to be included in Office 2007) on equal footing.

Peter Strickx, general manager for architecture and standards of Fedict, the organization that coordinates the ICT policy of the Belgian Federal Government, commented on the proposal in an interview with ZDNet Belgium.

"Increasingly, we are seeing e-mail and electronic documents being used in communication between citizens and the government and between companies and the government", said Strickx. "To avoid becoming dependent on any particular supplier, we are moving towards open standards." A draft of ODF was accepted by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in May.

From September 2008 onwards, Belgium's Federal services must use ODF when exchanging documents, though other formats will still be allowed for internal use, Peter Strickx confirmed. However, Belgium is leaving the door open for Open XML.

"Open XML today does not exist, as there is no product on the market that supports it. Once it is available as a product and proposed to the ISO, it is possible that the format will also be accepted," said Strickx. However, there will be an additional hurdle. Open XML must also be proven to be easily convertible to and from ODF.

This would appear to set Microsoft before a simple choice: convince the Belgian government that Open XML is an open standard well on the way to ISO-approval, or support ODF. The latter may be the simpler task, as the OpenDocument Foundation is already working on a plug-in for Microsoft Office that would add ODF support.

However, Strickx would not confirm that the Belgian Government is envisaging a migration away from Microsoft Office and towards software that supports ODF, such as Open Office. "We are analyzing the impact" of the move to an open format for document exchange on the internal software usage, said Strickx.

Belgium would be the first country to opt for open document standards in this way.

According to Strickx, this Belgian strategy is likely to gain a following. He claimed France and Denmark are considering similar moves.

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