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So long, Microsoft! UK government abandons Office, embraces free-to-use software

James Temperton
23 Jul 2014
Palace of Westminster
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All government departments are moving to free-to-use open document formats, saving millions in the process

Switching document formats might not sound exciting, but news that government departments are shunning Office in favour of the free-to-use open document format (ODF) is brilliant news. Microsoft has whined that the benefits of the switch are "unclear", but the Cabinet Office is clear – the switch will save money and make the government more open.

Instead of using confusing formats that require specialist software to open, all government departments must now use ODF, PDF and HTML for viewing and creating documents. Sound boring? It isn't.

The public sector has spent £200m on Microsoft Office since 2010, with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude deploring the "oligopoly of IT suppliers" used by Whitehall. Announcing plans to move to new document formats back in February, Maude said that the government was overly reliant on "a few large companies" and that this needed to change.

Microsoft, one of the companies Maude was alluding to, was unsurprisingly critical of the move:

"Microsoft believes it is unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government’s decision," a spokesperson said. Microsoft added that Office 2013 and Office 365 already support ODF, but this somewhat misses the point.

When consultation into a new file format for government departments opened earlier this year Microsoft wanted its own Open XML format to be included. "While including ODF is a choice that Microsoft supports, ignoring and omitting OpenXML will ensure that the very things the government is trying to avoid are actually more likely to happen," said Michel Van der Bel from Microsoft UK.

Critics pointed out that OpenXML would still require people to pay for Microsoft software, adding that the software giant was trying to protect its "near monopoly" by presurring the government to continue using its file formats.

It is ludicrous for governments to be spending millions of pounds on software to open and edit documents. Freely available alternatives have been available for some time and the Cabinet Office's decision to move all government departments to ODF should be applauded.

Terence Eden, one of the first people to propose the government switch to ODF, praised the move to open standards:

"Open standards means zero extra cost for the citizen," he said. "In the future, you won't have to buy Microsoft Office just to read or respond to a government document. You won't need the latest and greatest computer, or cutting edge software."

The Cabinet Office said that the move to ODF would allow citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations to ditch specialist software when opening and working with government documents. The switch will also ensure that people in government are able to share and work with documents in the same format, eliminating 'file not recognised' errors. This makes government more open and ensures information can be accessed freely by everyone.

The new standards come into effect immediately, with a government's digital services team working with departments to help them implement the new, freely available software.

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