Microsoft and the Government’s Open Standards

Microsoft and the Government’s Open Standards

In 2010, the United Kingdom began the arduous process of reforming its digital strategy. The UK Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills launched an extensive investigation into which IT standards would become official policy. The goal of this inquiry and overhaul was to attain standard protocols that would foster more efficient communication between departmental systems. Francis Maude, the former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, emphatically asserted “The kind of standards we should be militant about are standards of interoperability, so you have proper connectivity.”

Especially important was the debate over which file format would be used for all public documents.

Behind the scenes of the government’s plan to push forward with standardization of file formats was high-pressure lobbying by Microsoft and other makers of proprietary software. Despite blog posts touting their support and integration of the ODF, Microsoft was completely against the adoption of open document formats. While the UK government investigated which file format would best suit their needs, Microsoft lobbied for its own file format, Office Open XML (OOXML), to become the common document type.

On the surface, the debate about how governmental documents are saved seems inane. However, OOXML losing out to ODF means a considerable loss of revenue for Microsoft and its business partners. ODF files can be opened, edited and saved in a myriad of programs, while OOXML files can only be accessed using Microsoft Office. The significance of these standards is that citizens and government agencies can access, save and distribute all of their files without having to purchase Microsoft Office. For example, Apache Open Office offers a full line of productivity software that works with ODF and is entirely free. Additionally, the UK IT mandate means that users can circumvent using Microsoft products altogether; open source operating systems like Linux can now access and share documents as well.

By codifying the new IT standards, the British government will be able to effect better communication within and between departments, leading to fewer errors at a lower cost. While this seems to be a major loss for Microsoft, it is a significant win for the cause of streamlining interoperability in the public sector.