Call for Asia to adopt ODF

U.N. official urges governments to "seriously consider" the OpenDocument Format; applauds Microsoft's move to create ODF plug-in.

SINGAPORE--An official from the United Nations (U.N.) has called for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to embrace the OpenDocument format.

Sunil Abraham, manager of the International Open Source Network (IOSN) at the U.N., told ZDNet Asia that most governments in the region have already stated their support for open standards, through their respective government interoperability frameworks.

He hopes that governments in the region will now extend that support and "seriously consider" the OpenDocument Format (ODF).

Last month, Malaysia became the one of the first Asian countries to propose the use of ODF as a national standard for office documents. Hasannudin Saidin, a member of Sirim, the country's standards development agency, said on his blog last month that the proposal will now undergo approval from a higher-level committee within Sirim.

Public consultation on the proposal will stretch over two months, beginning in September and ending in October 2006, after which comments will be raised to the Malaysian Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation. According to Saidin, ODF is expected to become a Malaysian-defined standard MS 26300, by the year-end.

In the Philippines, there is no official policy on the adoption of ODF in the country, according to Peter Antonio Banzon, division chief of the Philippines' Advanced Science & Technology Institute, although the government agency has already standardized its internal documents on the ODF.

Because the country has a tradition of relying on a "market-driven approach" to adopting standards, a "huge amount of advocacy work" needs to come from the nation's senior policymakers to drive open standards in general, Banzon told ZDNet Asia. Still, he said that a few senior government officials have recognized the value of open standards, and are "quietly doing their share of advocacy to other decision makers [within the government sector]".

According to IOSN's Abraham, the lack of interoperability is stopping more governments from going ahead to mandate the ODF standard within their countries.

As there is "no full compatibility" between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, the application most commonly used to create ODF files, Abraham said governments might face interoperability issues if they tried to work on Microsoft Office documents in OpenOffice.

"[By adopting proprietary standards], the government will become a marketing agent for proprietary software companies."
--Sunil Abraham
International Open Source Network (IOSN) at the United Nations
And that appears to be the main reason why the Singapore government is holding off any decision to adopt ODF.

A spokesperson for Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority told ZDNet Asia: "Many users today use the Microsoft Office suite and cannot read documents stored in ODF. It is therefore not practical for the government to adopt ODF as the only standard, as it will inconvenience a large number of users." "As new formats, such as ODF, achieve more widespread adoption among users, IDA will support them accordingly for the convenience of the public," she added.

The island-state's Ministry of Defense (Mindef), however, has gone ahead on its own to adopt the ODF after it made the decision to roll out OpenOffice in 2004.

According to Mindef CIO Cheok Beng Teck, ODF offers Mindef "true" ownership of its intellectual property. "We now know [how] the XML (extensible markup language) format [is implemented in] our documents, and have the freedom to manipulate it in whatever way we want," he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview. "We are no longer tied down by the proprietary standards of a vendor."

Document preservation
A common argument that supports the adoption of ODF is document preservation. Because there is no guarantee that a software vendor will exist as a viable business decades later, governments may find themselves stuck with file formats that are no longer supported by any vendor or company in the market.

Abraham explained: "Most governments in this region are older than the software vendors that they are talking to, and they will almost certainly outlive the software vendors and developers. For government [document] archives, it is thus critical that [they] use open formats."

For instance, he noted that WordStar was a popular word processor used in the 1980s. But the software is no longer supported by any vendor, and it will be difficult to retrieve information stored in WordStar documents today.

"Data longevity is an important reason for governments to use open standards," Abraham said.

Moreover, governments often make documents publicly available through e-government initiatives. In such cases, Abraham said, governments that adopt proprietary standards are "forcing" citizens to either purchase proprietary software, or use unlicensed software, in order to access these documents.

"The government will become a marketing agent for proprietary software companies," he said. "It's important that citizens be able to consume [government] information without committing a crime. That is only possible if governments follow some form of open standards."

However, Abraham noted that the adoption of OpenDocument still faces several challenges, such as the inertia of users to switch to OpenOffice--though Mindef's Cheok said he managed to overcome concerns raised by "a few dissenting voices".

Cheok explained: "We did a road show, visited every unit and took pains to communicate the strategic benefits [to Mindef] and savings associated with this move.

"Once the users understood the reasons for this move and the savings involved, they were supportive of the migration and the majority embraced this change whole-heartedly," he said.

Moreover, Mindef adopted a flexible approach by continuing to provide Microsoft Office to users who have strong business needs for the software, for instance, when they need to collaborate with external parties.

Microsoft, in an attempt to appease government customers requesting for ODF support, said last month that it plans to sponsor an open-source project to create plug-in software that allows Microsoft Office users to work on ODF documents.

Abraham welcomed this move by Microsoft, and pointed out that an ODF plug-in for Microsoft Office will strengthen the case for governments to standardize on ODF.

Mindef's Cheok agreed. "[The ODF plug-in] would overcome most of the inter-operability issues between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice because ODF can be read and edited by either software."

Technology evolution
Goh Seow Hiong, Asia director of software policy at Business Software Alliance (BSA), said adopters of technology standards must consider the flexibility of these standards over time as technology evolves.

"It isn't the case that an open standard is always necessarily the best choice," he said. "There have been instances in the past where other de-facto standards such as SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol), fared better and were preferred by consumers to open standards such as the X.400, that existed at that time. With time, many of these de-facto standards eventually became open standards, including the SMTP."

Furthermore, he noted that if organizations adopt ODF to the exclusion of other standards, it could become a burden over time.

Goh explained: "The technology based on ODF continues to evolve, and it is still unclear whether the various performance criteria required by customer demand and need would be sufficiently met by ODF implementations.

"Whether that happens over time depends on demand and the software developers' responses to meet the demand," he added. "This is not to say that governments should artificially create the demand that would distort the market, and lead to inefficiencies and hamper innovation. Other standards are also likely to emerge over time."

Another point to consider is that different standards and formats serve different purposes, Goh said. Formats such as Adobe's PDF are used primarily for viewing, while others such as the ODF and Microsoft's Word Document, are for editing documents.

"For someone publishing a document for wide consumption, the use of different formats would serve different purposes," he said. "Using only one standard exclusively for the wrong purpose would not work, even if it is an open standard."

"Using only one standard exclusively for the wrong purpose would not work, even if it is an open standard."
--Goh Seow Hiong
BSA Asia
While Abraham agreed that proprietary standards such as Microsoft's Word Document and MP3, that have become de-facto standards over time could also address interoperability issues, software vendors are required to pay royalties for including some of these standards in their products.

Adobe, on the contrary, does not impose royalties on software companies that creates software to read and write PDF files, so "everybody can benefit from this proprietary standard," Abraham said.

But he acknowledged that open standards have its shortcomings: "[Open standards] may not be the best way to get innovation out of an industry because private companies sometimes move much faster than big consortiums and committees."

Mindef's Cheok noted that the adoption of open standards takes time.

"Currently, Microsoft Office format is overwhelmingly dominant in Singapore," he said. "Most of us are casual users, we do not care if a document [is based on] open standards as long as we can read and edit it. If Microsoft Office format [already] serves this purpose, it would take a long time for the ODF to gain widespread adoption."

"As a community, we need to decide whether it is in our strategic interests to [provide and have] choice. If it is in our interest to do so, a good starting point is to encourage the provision of both Microsoft Office format and ODF in all public and commercial Web sites and let people decide which version they want to use.

"If new versions of Microsoft Office costs too much to buy, and older versions of Microsoft Office have reached end-of-life and are no longer supported, I think users--in bigger numbers--will begin to look at OpenOffice as an alternative."