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Wednesday, 26 January 2011 07:55

OOXML kerfuffle similar to that of 2007


The kerfuffle over Microsoft Office OOXML, that began when the Australian Government Information Management Office released a draft document recently stating that it would be the document format for all of government, is quite similar to that which occurred a little more than three years ago.

At that time, Microsoft was trying to get Office OOXML accepted as an ISO standard in opposition to the Open Document Format (ODF) which had been championed by OpenOffice.org and its variants.

Comments, reportedly made by members of Australia's GNU/Linux community, reflect exactly the kind of ambivalence which was expressed by the GNOME Desktop project in 2007.

At that time, once it was discovered that people from the GNOME Foundation were participating in meetings to discuss adoption of this OOXML, then-foundation media spokesman Jeff Waugh had to try and douse the flames. He was not successful.

Things became worse when the KDE Desktop Project issued a statement, saying it would not offer support for the Microsoft standard, because in part, "The standardisation process of OfficeOpenXML has turned sour, not in the least because Microsoft couldn't resist the temptation to cheat."

There was a lot of shuffling backwards and forwards by various people in the FOSS community to try and hose down the situation but it all failed. Let me not bore you with all the details, dear reader, they are here for your reading pleasure.

All one needs to mention is that, emboldened by the activities of all these "open-source advocates", Microsoft, which had initially said that ISO would have control over the OOXML standard, changed its tune and said control would remain with ECMA. As it has.

Back to the present. The AGIMO released a long list of standards (PDF) that would form a common operating environment for the whole of government. This means that the federal government, the Labor Party and its supporters, is behind this move.

After this came to light, there has been a fairly heated reaction, and the AGIMO is now trying to cool things down by saying that the discussion on the document standard has been reopened.

There are a number of folk who are trying to douse the flames. Linux Australia president John Ferlito was quoted yesterday as saying that much of the draft document had been blown out of proportion.

He also added that it was unfortunate that the "hubbub" was bad timing as it had happened at a time when the Australian national Linux conference was taking place (It's taking place in Brisbane).

Anyone who knows how government operates would only laugh. The government always releases news that is bound to generate criticism or a blowback at times when it thinks the media is asleep.

During the peak news season, this is generally a Friday afternoon, in the hope (often justified) that in the 24-hour news cycle, the story will die by the next Monday.

AGIMO has done exactly the same thing, releasing the draft standards document at a quiet time in the news cycle - Australians are out on the beaches, watching sport, and having a holiday. Nobody will pay attention to anything until the month is over.

The same Waugh whom I mentioned above has also been quoted as an open-source advocate, saying that AGIMO could have attracted less attention by simply asking for compatibility with Microsoft's .docx format.

But that's not what the government is specifying. Microsoft Office OOXML itself differs in the company's own Office suites. The document format generated in Office 2010 is not the same as that generated by Office 2007. Neither is an open standard - which is what the government purportedly wants to recommend.

Yesterday, at a mini-conference on "Open in the Public Sector" at the 12th Australian national Linux conference, Pia Waugh, a former president of Linux Australia, made a statement to the audience that "government is embracing open."

She made it clear that this was her own opinion; however, as an adviser to Labor Senator Kate Lundy, everything she said was quite clearly informed by her being in that position.

Office OOXML is not an open standard; the government recommended it some 10 days ago. How then can the "government be embracing open?"

Ms Waugh kept insisting that all the government was asking for read-write capability as far as OOXML was concerned. Quite right, but which Office suite apart from Microsoft's own has that capability?

What are the implications when a government lays down a standard like OOXML for its documents? Contractors who want to bid for government work have to adhere to the standard too.

And these big contractors typically have a lot of their work outsourced. Bingo, the next line of those waiting to grow fat on government money has to adhere to the standard as well.

It goes on. The whole system is involved and at the end of the line are the bottom-feeders - you and I, gentle reader, the taxpayers of this big brown land. We have to buy the latest version of Office so that more money can be sent to Redmond.

I've spent the last two days at the Linux conference in Brisbane and, as always, I've been amazed at the amount of brainpower around. Yet, with all these bright people here to support an open standard, what Australians are being asked to do by their own government is to adhere to a closed format and pay an American company for the privilege of doing so.

But then why are people surprised at this tilt? The powers-that-be are so enamoured of the software that comes out of Redmond that if you even want to register a new political party in Australia, one of the requirements is that you provide a "A Microsoft compatible electronic membership list (and paper copy) providing the following information for each member:..." (PDF - go to page 6 and search for Microsoft)

Food for thought, indeed.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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