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Belgian gov't moves toward OpenDocument format

The move could have ripple effects across Europe

By Eric Lai
June 26, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In another blow to the supremacy of Microsoft's Office franchise, Belgium on Friday became the second governmental body to approve the use of the OpenDocument format as a way to exchange government documents.

By September 2007, all Belgian federal agencies must use software that can read reports, spreadsheets, presentations and other types of data files saved in OpenDocument (ODF), a free XML file format certified as a standard by the International Standards Organization (ISO) last month.

"If the impact analysis shows no adverse impact, ODF might even become the standard exchange format in September 2008," according to information posted on the Web site of the Belgian Government Interoperability Framework. Belgium joins the state of Massachusetts in a symbolic break from Microsoft. Massachusetts plans to make ODF its standard for all official government documents by Jan. 1.

Though it is a small country with just 10 million citizens, Belgium's embrace of ODF could have big ripple effects. Its capital, Brussels, is the headquarters of the European Union, making it an important political center in Europe.

The Danish government voted earlier this month to move to open technology standards, though it has not yet decided whether that would involve ODF, according to sources. The Norwegian government is also considering moving to ODF.

"Given the current favorable attitude of the European Community to open standards, and, in particular, to the way that European governments and initiatives are defining open standards, it is not surprising that a growing number of European countries are moving to adopt ODF, which is conducive to not only proprietary but open-source implementations as well," said Andy Updegrove, an open-source advocate and Boston-based lawyer.

ODF is the default file format in OpenOffice, StarOffice and an increasing number of Web-based word processing and spreadsheet applications. Though only utilized by a small percentage of users worldwide today, ODF is supported by some of the largest technology vendors, including IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Novell Inc. They argue that the format's open, interoperable nature makes it suitable for groups concerned about long-term archiving of files.

ODF's chief opponent is Microsoft Corp., whose market-leading Office suite is used by more than 400 million people worldwide, according to the vendor. By default, Office applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint save files in proprietary file formats owned by Microsoft, such as .doc, .xls and .ppt, respectively -- although users can also choose open formats such as Text (.txt) and Rich Text Format (.rtf).

Some experts say that users' need to remain compatible with Office formats has been key to maintaining Microsoft's market dominance. Microsoft has argued that ODF stifles its own innovation and limits customer choice. It is developing a competing format, OpenXML, that will debut in its forthcoming Office 2007. Microsoft has garnered the support of other vendors for OpenXML and is applying to ECMA International, a rival standards body to ISO, for certification as an open standard.

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