UK Government Now Main Driver of ODF Advance: Kudos

Back in July last year, I wrote about an incredible opportunity for the open source world. After years of disappointments, and despite the usual lobbying/threats by a certain large US software company against the move, the Cabinet Office announced that it was officially adopting the Open Document Format (ODF) for sharing or collaborating on government documents. At the time I exhorted everyone involved to do their utmost to make this work, since it was the biggest chance to show that open standards and open source were not just viable as a government solution, but actually better than the alternatives.

Since then, we've heard very little - either in terms of the move being a raging success or a dismal failure. That makes this update from Francis Maude, who has been one of the key people driving this move, particularly welcome, as it seems that real progress has been made:

Since the standards were selected, departments have been publishing their implementation plans for moving to the agreed formats. Several departments have been planning user research and pilots for different software as part of the move to ODF (Open Document Format).

A number of departments are starting to publish in open formats, including the Department for Transport, Department for Communities and Local Government, Department of Health, Department for Work and Pensions, and HM Revenue and Customs. Many more departments will follow by the end of the year.

Clearly, those are huge wins - my fear was that only a few smaller departments would have started moving to ODF, while the big beasts simply carried on as before. Although it's hard to judge exactly how far and how committed the Departments listed above really are to the new formats, it's promising that they are even mentioned.

Nor is this the only evidence that the UK government's policy is having an effect. Maude's post continues:

The government has also been working with a number of software providers to encourage them to improve their support for open formats in order to improve users’ experience when they share documents.

As part of this work, Microsoft has announced that it will include enhanced support for ODF in its cloud­ based software. Francis Maude met with Microsoft’s UK Country Manager, Michel Van der Bel, recognising Microsoft’s work on open standards.

Google has also announced that it brought forward its planned support for exporting presentations in this open format in addition to the existing support for text and spreadsheets. Users will soon be able to export text documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the latest open formats from two of the most commonly used products.

Support from both of those major players is critical: the more obstacles there are to using ODF, the fewer people will bother. Conversely, the easier it is to move between various platforms and services using the Open Document Format, the more users will adopt it.

I think the fact that Microsoft and Google are mentioned here as adding this kind of support is an indication of something really significant: that the Cabinet Office's move to ODF last year has acted as a catalyst for the Open Document ecosystem, and started things moving in a way that nothing has until now.

I don't know whether it played a role in the following announcement from The Document Foundation, the organisation behind LibreOffice, but it's an interesting that this was unveiled now:

LibreOffice, the best free office suite ever, is set to become the cornerstone of the world’s first global personal productivity solution – LibreOffice Online – following an announcement by IceWarp and Collabora of a joint development effort. LibreOffice is available as a native application for every desktop OS, and is currently under development for Android. In addition, it is available on virtual platforms for Chrome OS, Firefox OS and iOS.

“LibreOffice was born with the objective of leveraging the OpenOffice historic heritage to build a solid ecosystem capable of attracting those investments which are key for the further development of free software,” says Eliane Domingos de Sousa, Director of The Document Foundation. “Thanks to the increasing number of companies which are investing on the development of LibreOffice, we are on track to make it available on every platform, including the cloud. We are grateful to IceWarp for providing the resources for a further development of LibreOffice Online.”

Development of LibreOffice Online started back in 2011, with the availability of a proof of concept of the client front end, based on HTML5 technology. That proof of concept will be developed into a state of the art cloud application, which will become the free alternative to proprietary solutions such as Google Docs and Office 365, and the first to natively support the Open Document Format (ODF) standard.

Sadly, there's no timetable for this development, which means it might be a while before we can actually use this software. Still, it's further testimony to the fact that the ODF ecosystem is one of the most exciting places in free software at the moment. Much of that can be attributed to the boost given by the UK government's high-profile decision to adopt the format last year, for which it deserves recognition and our thanks.

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