What exactly are the advantages of an open platform? Advocates point to a number of potential benefits.
Advocates of open format say this approach speaks directly to a fundamental mission shared by governments worldwide: citizen service. “If citizens are forced to use one company’s word processor to read the proceedings of a legislature, that creates barriers to participation and gives an awful lot of power to the owner of that tool,” said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist at open source developer Red Hat.
That call for openness resonates with many inside government as well as those trying to access public data. “If you make a Freedom of Information Act request, you get boxes of paper. You can call that ‘open,’ but you can’t really say it is accessible,” said Deborah Bryant, a board member with the Open Source Initiative advocacy group and founder of the Bryant Group, an IT consulting practice in Portland, Ore.
“There are institutions, nonprofits, social advocates and businesses too that may have the tools to extract information, but only if it is made available,” she said. “If it is sitting in an Oracle database someplace, it becomes very difficult to access.”
By putting data in a commonly readable format, open platforms should make information more readily available to citizens.
Then there’s the matter of budgeting. Governments have an obligation to get the best value in their procurements, and platforms like ODF may bring an advantage by opening the doors of competition. “Open standards encourage a fair market by making the rules public and easy for everyone to follow,” Hellekson said. “A proprietary standard, on the other hand, distorts markets and reduces competition by putting one company or organization in charge of the rules.”
By leveling the playing field, open formats free end users to switch allegiances, if they become disenchanted with a vendor’s offerings. “If everyone is compliant with a standard, I can always just go to another supplier,” said Mark Driver, research vice president at Gartner. “So it becomes a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market.”
In practical terms, open formats can help ensure that governments meet their longer-term objectives of preserving archives and records over time. “When you use something proprietary, you don’t know whether people are still going to be using that technology a dozen years from now,” said Driver. “The open document format is great for the need to have archived documents that don’t depend on a product.”
Certainly it’s hard to argue with openness, competition and interoperability. But that doesn’t make ODF a slam dunk.
On the one hand, having interchangeable choices should lead to financial savings. “In the civil service, there was a sense that if you hired a big multinational, who everyone knew the name of, you’d never be fired,” Maude told the British press. “We weren’t just missing out on innovation, we were paying top dollar for yesterday’s technology.”
If openness drives competition, that would seem an unadorned positive in the financial sense. “Budget pressures are real in every country in the world,” said Dave Lounsbury, CTO of The Open Group, a nonprofit industry standards consortium. “The ability to trade out a vendor, to trade out a component, that is what happens when you have moved to a standards strategy.”
Yet money is a bigger question mark than some might expect. Just as open source software is distributed literally for free, open format-based solutions are presumed to save money. By creating more choice in the marketplace and cutting users free from the dominant market players, ODF should bring down costs. Or so goes the theory.
In practice it’s a bit more complicated. “The costs of acquiring the technology may be lower, but there are still the costs of maintenance to consider,” Hellekson said. Open format systems still require upkeep, and agencies may not always have the skilled staff needed to work with these systems.
Conversion also can be problematic. “Agencies have documents that are in Microsoft Word format or IBM Lotus format, and you always have to look at the migration strategy to go from what you have now to this future vision of interoperability,” Lounsbury said. “There is going to be a transition cost.”
While it’s true that ODF may help a government agency break out from the chokehold of a few mega-vendors, that doesn’t mean the agency will be entirely without vendor support. Users don’t have to pair their open platform with an open source software solution and risk shouldering the entire burden of support. In fact, many software vendors actively develop their products on open platforms for global use.
“The proprietary solutions work fine and people continue to use them,” said Laurent Liscia, CEO of OASIS, which developed ODF. “It’s not like people suddenly stop using these solutions.”
Software that supports ODF includes Corel WordPerfect Office X6, IBM Lotus Symphony and Microsoft Office 2013. This last may seem ironic, given Microsoft’s stance on the pending U.K. mandate.
In an open letter, Microsoft’s area vice president for the U.K., Michel Van der Bel, said that while the company has no objection to ODF in principle, any mandate ought to also include OpenXML, the open platform developed by Microsoft.