The U.K. is moving to a system where citizens can exchange information with the government digitally by default -- but in choosing the file formats to use for that exchange, it must balance corporate interests with those of citizens.
The recommendation of HTML for browser-based editable text and PDF as the default for non-editable documents is uncontroversial, as they can both be read on most computer platforms.
However, when it comes to exchanging drafts of documents between government departments, or between government and citizens or suppliers, the choice of an editable file format is proving more controversial.
An interministerial body, the Cabinet Office, is now evaluating comments on its proposal to adopt Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for sharing documents with and within the government.
The goal of the Cabinet Office was to identify document standards that do not impose costs on users, and in which text, spreadsheets and presentations could be edited on different devices without loss of integrity. It also wanted to avoid tying users to a particular vendor.
Among the reasons it gave for selecting ODF were the availability of compatible applications, including open source implementations, for devices running Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS and Android, with some web-based applications also able to read and write files in the format. ODF 1.1 is now an international standard, ISO/IEC 26300, and the ODF 1.2 specification under development by OASIS, an industry standards body, is expected to be adopted by ISO in due course.
The Cabinet Office's choice didn't please Microsoft U.K. National Technology Officer Mark Ferrar, who made a counterproposal urging adoption of the OOXML format alongside ODF.
"Microsoft believes that the least cost and most effective way forward for any organisation seeking to ensure the maximum range of interoperability, the richest range of functionality and the widest use of common formats should be to embrace multiple open standard document formats," he wrote.
The term OOXML has been used to refer to a number of related but distinct file formats. The first was the native file format for Microsoft Office 2007, which became, with modifications, the ECMA-376 industry standard.
This, in turn, became the basis of the international standard ISO/IEC 29500:2008. The ISO standard is split into four parts, three of them defining the "strict" parts of the format while the fourth defines so-called "transitional" features used to describe legacy documents created in older versions of Microsoft Word. ECMA International adopted the strict parts of ISO/IEC 29500 as ECMA-376 edition 2.
The standard Ferrar proposes the U.K. government adopt is ISO/IEC 29500:2012, a still newer version.
Confusingly, a wordprocessor document with the file extension for OOXML, .docx, could contain any one of these formats, and different versions of Microsoft Word vary in their ability to open or save them.
Office 2013 and Office 365 can open, edit and save both strict and transitional variants of ISO/IEC 29500. Office 2010 can handle transitional documents, but requires an add-on to open and edit the strict format, and can't save it, according to Microsoft's website. Office 2007 can't handle the strict variant at all. Office 2003 can open, edit and save only the transitional format, and for that requires an add-on.
Opting only for ODF risks alienating those citizens and businesses that either have no capability to read and edit ODF or who have already chosen to use Open XML as their default, Ferrar said.
However, even citizens using a version of Microsoft Office bought in the last seven years can handle ODF files. Office 2007 and 2010 can open and save ODF 1.1 files, while Office 2013 can open and edit ODF 1.1 and 1.2 files, although it can only save them as ODF 1.2, according to the Microsoft Office blog.
"By embracing both Open XML and ODF, the government can guarantee to reach the widest audience across both citizens and businesses without obliging either to expend money just to communicate with government," Ferrar wrote.
Even if citizens wanted OOXML documents, that wouldn't mean the government had to use Microsoft Office to generate them: LibreOffice, one of the two most popular packages built around the ODF file format, can read, edit and save documents in the OOXML format used by Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 (transitional).
Ferrar also argued that iPad owners (of which there were 5.3 million in the U.K. in March 2013, according to YouGov) need additional software to display ODF files. While it is true that iPad users can view .docx files without additional software, they cannot edit them -- which is problematic since Microsoft is proposing OOXML as an alternative to ODF for editable documents. The iPad, like most platforms today, can read PDF files, which the government proposes to use for documents that don't need editing.
In his response, Ferrar also claimed that Google Docs no longer supports ODF files, although in this reporter's tests the desktop version of the online productivity app can still import, edit and export ODF files.
Others are less enthusiastic than Ferrar about adopting both formats in parallel.
One such is Björn Lundell, an associate professor at the University of Skövde in Sweden, who has spent decades studying the development of computer file formats and their implementation in government and private sector software systems.
His view is that while adopting ODF makes sense, it would be unwise to put OOXML in any mandate.
The existence of several well-established open-source projects that can read and write ODF files helps minimize the risk of vendor lock-in, and promotes interoperability between software from different providers, including Microsoft Office, which can also handle ODF files, Lundell said.
Lundell's research has shown that maintenance and support contracts for proprietary licensed software typically run for up to 10 years. But public sector organisations often need to preserve and modify their software systems and digital assets for more than 30 years, he said. This implies that documents outlive proprietary software in any maintenance scenario, he said.
"Software used for the initial creation of documents will not be available during the complete life-cycle for many systems, both for public sector organisations and companies," he said. For this reason it is essential that public sector organisations only use document formats for which there are effective open source software implementations -- as they can then, if necessary, pay anyone to maintain or support the software, while ongoing support for proprietary, commercial software remains under the control of its developer.
This does not mean that only open source software can be used, but it is essential that there exist effective open source software alternatives that can read and write all file formats used in the public sector, should commercial providers discontinue support, he said.
"In contrast with the situation for ODF, there is today unfortunately no open source project that provides effective support for the ISO standard 29500, strict OOXML," he said.
One reason for that could be that the standard itself is insufficient to create applications that can reliably exchange files with one another. A study conducted by Europe Economics for the European Commission in 2012, Guidelines for Public Procurement of ICT Goods and Services, found: "The technical specifications of this ISO standard include references to proprietary technology and brand names of specific products. Further, the specification of this ISO standard is not complete (i.e. the technical specification contains references to an external web site (www.microsoft.com) which refers to web pages that are not currently available."
For Lundell, picking a format that cannot be opened or created by a range of applications is not a good option. And, he said, "Given that Microsoft supports ODF, why use something else?"
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org