The Open Document Format (ODF) has been created to provide a standard mechanism to make documents portable across applications and devices, locally and through the cloud. It was formally standardised by OASIS and has a draft for a global document standard, ensuring that documents stored as ODF can be accessed by future generations and with a choice of applications.
Organisations have already found that documents created in proprietary applications can no-longer be opened if the application is not installable on the users current computer. Although inconvenient, the problem is far more pronounced when public sector organisations are unable to access historical files if the original application is no longer available and the files are created in an undocumented structure. We take it for granted that letters written hundreds of years ago can still be read owing to the openness of our language.
This lack of full Microsoft support prevents users of their Office applications from seamlessly interacting with users of other office software whilst retaining the integrity of the formatting, and in some cases, integrity of the data. Users with existing documents may be concerned that they are unable to switch office products due to the inability to retain all of the information contained within the saved file, therefore being forced to upgrade to new versions or move online to maintain their documents.
It is clear that Microsoft have no technical reason that they are unable to support the full ODF standards, but would prefer to force users to adopt their competing formats which are not open standard, and therefore are not cleanly supported by other products.
There have been many anecdotal reports of problems with editing documents saved with Microsoft Office applications and opened in other applications including indexing issues, metadata not preserved, merge fields not editable, however at the recent 10th Plugfest, the published slides from the Microsoft presentation clearly state that there are functional exceptions which include Change tracking and issues handling version identifiers. The presentation can be found here.
One significant customer is the UK Government, who formally adopted ODF V1.2 as the standard for document interchange on July 22nd 2014 after consideration of the Open Standards Board. The decision was debated for quite some time but that was just the start of the process, implementation across government departments will be a challenge.
The impact of this may be measured in millions of pounds if the UK Government is forced to renew license agreements in future owing to the failure of adopting an Open standard, therefore limiting their choices and preventing any competition of supplier.
Many departments have processes and systems that are deeply connected to the documents, therefore cannot easily be switched over. The Government has been asked to publish plans on how it will adopt ODF, a task delegated to each department to manage. Most describe an initial move to PDF for publishing documents to view and print, followed by internal document creation and storage, and ending with documents that need to be sent to the public in an editable format.
Published plans can be accessed online for DCLG, UKTI and CPS.
On closer inspection, there is still confusion throughout these plans and the departments clearly need industry support to understand the issues and implement solutions. An active industry group COIS have created an infographic scorecard with their assessment of some key implementation plans.
The Home Office are expected to publish their implementation plan before the end of 2014 and it is likely to show a cautious approach with a transitional period. There is no doubt that it will draw criticism for a lack of ambition, however I hope that it will provide some concrete examples of swift implementation for simpler scenarios where there is less reliance on applications integrated with other systems.
The outcome of the implementation of the ODF implementation will surely affect anyone who interacts with the UK Government, even if it just because you pay your taxes.
Various tools are becoming available to test documents against the ODF specification, Officeshots is an initiative by the OpenDocSociety and enables documents to be uploaded and processed through a variety of office applications so a user can detect if content or formatting is not preserved after processing. An interesting option is the "Round-trip ODF" function. With this, a user can upload a document, process it through one of the 15 office applications and retrieve the processed file. The file can then be compared to the original and any damage or missing data can be identified. Other testing tools were developed for the recent 10th Plugfest sponsored by the Cabinet Office.
Microsoft Office online provides a description of available features for the core Microsoft Office formats, and also details features that are not available when using ODF with Microsoft applications.
To report EU web sites that do not conform to the mandated standards for providing or accepting documents, take a look at fixmydocuments.eu, you can also register your support for Open Documents.
Whilst a great deal of progress is being made, there are still many challenges with implementation of the standard and the risk is still real that a single vendor could force the Government to stay in the current position where there is no way for anyone to compete to provide what is now a commodity service.
Posted by Stuart J Mackintosh on 15/12/2014