Australia's Department of Finance has released a desktop policy that required all agencies to adopt Office Open XML as the standard document format - a move that in the short term ensures Microsoft's Office suite remains embedded in government.
The Whole-of-Government Common Operating Environment (WofG COE) Policy [pdf] mandates that an agency's productivity suite "must have the ability to read and write the endorsed file format" that complies with the ECMA-376 version Office Open XML (OOXML) standard.
That particular OOXML standard was rejected by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) because it was littered with Windows-platform dependencies, according to its opponents.
The ODF Alliance, backed by IBM and Google, has warned about the adoption of the ECMA-376 standard by governments.
"The use of ECMA-376 essentially ties the adopter to Microsoft Office," the lobby group warned in October last year in a document entitled "What Government's Need to Know".
That standard, it pointed out, contained "many Windows-platform dependencies" that Microsoft was forced to remove under the ISO process in order to get it approved as ISO-29500 -- a standard that the Microsoft Office 2010 product has so far failed to comply with.
While Microsoft may already dominate public sector productivity suites, the directive issued by Australia's Government Information Management Office [AGIMO] may severely limit agency choices.
Many rival productivity suites have the ability to read and import Microsoft's OOXML format documents, notated by the .docx extension in the case of Word files, but few have the capacity to write in that format.
Unlike a 2009 UK open document format policy which made room for both the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard and OOXML, AGIMO's policy document made no mention of the ODF standard -- the format supported by IBM, Sun Microsystems and Google.
ODF was also the format selected as standard by the National Archives of Australia in 2006.
AGIMO explained that it was settling on OOXML to "facilitate the exchange of information between agencies."
However it appears to leave some room for flexibility, adding that its decision "does not preclude the use of other file formats."
The demand for write capability may hinder Google's future cloud efforts, should it attempt to woo Canberra's agencies to its cloud-based platform as it has in the US.
Applications that only support .docx read capabilities include Apple's iWork, IBM's Lotus Notes, Oracle's OpenOffice.Org and Google Docs, amongst others.
However, some developers have built productivity suites that offer read and write capabilities that support the OOXML format.
The latest release of the non-Oracle version of OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, for example can read and edit Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 formats.
LibreOffice was created by the Document Foundation, which is supported by Google, Novell, Red Hat, Canonical and BrOffice and has on its board longtime OpenOffice.org contributor Charles Schulz.
According to Schulz, that same read-write functionality in Novell's OpenOffice.org was intentionally scuttled between 2007 and 2008 when Microsoft co-opted it to support its OOXML lobbying efforts.
According to Schulz, Microsoft's own productivity suites, Office 2007 and 2010, have yet to meet the ISO-29500 standard -- a fact that may explain why AGIMO has not mandated the more stringent version of the OOXML standard.
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