Britain Endorses ODF; Why Not The U.S.? - InformationWeek

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2/25/2009
05:21 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Britain Endorses ODF; Why Not The U.S.?

The Open Document Format was adopted today by the British government as a basis for making future software purchases based on open standards. In general, Britain is requiring government agencies to use as much software based on standards as possible, based on its 10-point program to encourage open standards and open source. If Britain can do it, why can't we?

The Open Document Format was adopted today by the British government as a basis for making future software purchases based on open standards. In general, Britain is requiring government agencies to use as much software based on standards as possible, based on its 10-point program to encourage open standards and open source. If Britain can do it, why can't we?ODF was the subject of the fight in Massachusetts, a state whose CIO once attempted to adopt ODF, before he resigned in the face of opposition to go on to other things. Instead of backing away from ODF implementation, Britain is embracing it. That's bad news for those who like monopolies based on proprietary formats.

ODF already is the standard in several European countries, but it seemed to make headway initially with those with the least empathy for aggressive, free enterprise, say, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and Croatia. It's also at this point been adopted on the Continent by Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and two states in Spain.

Beyond Europe, ODF is the standard in Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the Argentinian state of Misiones in South America.

It's been adopted by Japan, Malaysia, and two states of India, as well as Hong Kong.

Other countries that have adopted it are South Africa and Russia, according to the ODF Alliance.

In this group of adopters, Britian is the country with the closest ties to North America. Its economy thrives, if that's the right word these days, on a similar liberal capitalism and technology-driven development. If Britain can adopt ODF, why not the U.S.?

I remember the arguments made against ODF in Massachusetts: if the state were to require it, that would be a sop to socialism, a strike against the time-honored business of proprietary software. But the software business is best justified when it takes place in a competitive environment. When it comes to desktop documents, there is little competition in general and within some organizations, no competition at all. Even where modest competition exists, a market dominated by a second Microsoft monopoly prevails.

Public agents can best serve the public interest by insuring government documents don't at some point disappear behind proprietary formats. What if, in the interest of driving sales of a new product line, a company announced that an older document format would no longer be supported? Government archives and personal computer users everywhere would be forced to migrate or invest in some conversion process that world restore their ability to display their own documents.

A group of open source practitioners recently wrote to President Obama, urging him to make mandatory the consideration of software that follows open standards. He could minimally support this proposal by issuing an executive order that open source products get considered alongside proprietary ones on a level playing field.

Or he could take a giant step forward and say, unlike Massachusetts, the federal government will require ODF as the document format for doing government business. Such a move would strike a blow for open standards in an arena where more openness would be a welcome change from the status quo.

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