The article – a preview piece for the Sprint 14 UK government digital event that I attended earlier today – quotes Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude as wanting to roll out software which can produce open-source files in the ‘open document format’ (ODF), such as OpenOffice and Google Docs.
Given that the report seems to have stemmed from a Cabinet Office briefing, the inclusion of Google Docs there prompted a somewhat terse response on Twitter from UK government CTO Liam Maxwell:
So what’s the reality here? Well, first up, Maude at no point today cited Microsoft by name, even if we all had a pretty good idea of who he was talking about when he said:
“Be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open Whitehall’s lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn we will open the door for a host of other software providers.”
We have been here before in the UK of course.
Back in 2002, the Labour government of the day published its Open Source Software: use within government policy document which advocated looking at non-Microsoft alternatives.
The same cry was issued again seven years later in the dying days of that same administration with pledges to accelerate open source adoption across government with an emphasis placed on office productivity tools.
But since that last bit of posturing, Microsoft has raked in an estimated £200 million from sales of Microsoft Office to the UK government.
So what’s the reality now? Do they mean it this time?
Well, the appetite for reform is well proven by now and Maude’s rhetoric against the so-called oligopoly of legacy suppliers to government can certainly be presumed to cover Microsoft.
But the whole ‘Microsoft out’ is really just an eye-catching angle to the otherwise worthy but rather dry publication of standards for departments to use for viewing government documents and sharing documents, including HTML, Open Document Format for Office Applications and PDFs. These have been under consideration by the government’s Standards Hub since last year.
So while we can certainly assume that Microsoft might face a bit more competition in the government market, it’s a gross exaggeration to claim that Office is set to be junked.
Maude himself said:
“It’s not about banning any one product or imposing an arbitrary list of standards.
“Our plan is about going back to the user needs, setting down our preferences and making sure we choose the software that meets our requirements best.”
Laying down open document standard alternatives to Office is another commendable action from the Maude regime within the Cabinet Office.
There are alternatives to Microsoft and it’s in the best interests of the taxpayer that government buyers are up to speed on acceptable options.
But laying out standards is only one step.
The real challenge to breaking the Microsoft Office stranglehold is convincing IT decision makers across government not to default to Microsoft as an instinctive first response.
Frankly that’s going to be a lot harder to pull off.
Check back tomorrow (Thursday) for more from Sprint 14.
Stuart Lauchlan has been tracking and commenting on the enterprise IT market for 23 years during which time he's managed to amuse, inform and irritate buy and sell side participants in equal and appropriate measure. Lauchlan also helps companies understand the needs of technology readers.