Open to the public

We paid for it. We want it. Keeping public data open is the only acceptable standard for government IT
Written by Leader , Contributor

Plucky little Belgium. Always the scene of upheavals across the centuries, and sometimes the place where gigantic battles have been fought. Now this David amongst European countries could be risking the wrath of that Goliath of software companies, Microsoft.

The Belgian government's decision to use only open formats for exchanging documents is pure common sense. The whole reason for having standards bodies and the standards they produce is to guarantee compatibility and stability above individual companies' commercial concerns. Millions of Euros of taxpayers' money is spent funding bodies like ISO, so it would be foolish to then ignore the work they do.

While the proposal before the Belgian government is to use an open standard, in practise that boils down to a single choice: OpenDocument. ODF is an international standard, beyond the control of a single vendor. In choosing to standardise on OpenDocument for government paperwork, Belgium is sending a clear message to software vendors: Our information is too important to be left to the whims of any one company.

Other EU governments should follow suit, and quickly. Waiting to see if an alternative standard gets approved several years down the line is in no-one's interest. Microsoft's alternative proposal of its Open XML format isn't even off the ground yet, and there's no guarantee that ISO will ratify it as a standard even when products using it do appear on the market. E-government has many advantages to both citizens and the administration, but everyone needs to be able to take part, and that relies on having a common language.

Belgium's decision to use ODF isn't inherently anti-Microsoft. Redmond is free to build OpenDocument compatibility into Office at any time, and always has been. It doesn't even need to be the default file format for the suite. Just the ability to read and write the format is enough. If more governments decide to standardise on ODF, Microsoft will simply have to fall into line or risk losing millions in licence fees.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft's approach to file formats will change now that Bill is taking more of a back seat. With Ray Ozzie looking after development, pragmatism may be more in vogue than dogma.

In the public sector, it's vital no one supplier is given an advantage over others. It's also imperative that the documents recording the business of government are readable by anyone at any time in the future. Only an open standard can achieve this. The private sector can also learn and benefit from this. Standards do not stifle innovation, nor restrict markets. Instead, they open them up to wider competition. Markets only work where they're not stacked in one player's favour.

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