The choice of ODF “shows the government risks increasing costs and reducing interoperability by ignoring the fact that the vast majority of citizens and businesses already use OpenXML as their preferred document format,” he wrote. “While including ODF is a choice that Microsoft supports, ignoring and omitting OpenXML will ensure that the very things the government is trying to avoid are actually more likely to happen.”

If there’s a whiff of ambivalence there, it’s not surprising. Vendors may fear open platforms for the flexibility and fluidity such formats offer to potential clients. At the same time, they may see opportunity here. “When it comes to the technology providers who support these standards, their best interest is to continue to have some exclusive relationship with their customer that affords them a way to do business long term,” Driver said.

Thus, while the fundamental open architecture may heat up competition, vendors can still add value in the realm of specialized products and services that, thanks to the open environment, would now become available to more broader users.

So, what are government IT leaders supposed to do about it all?

Wading In

The first step is education, Bryant said. Because of the proximity of open source, there lingers the perception that open format is a no-man’s land where government IT managers are left to fend for themselves without the support of a paid vendor. Also, people may equate “open” with “not secure,” a universal concern for government agencies.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions floating around,” Bryant said.

Government leaders who opt for an open platform also should brace themselves for possibly having to rethink how new systems are brought into the shop. “Typically, procurements are written in a way that starts with the software the agency already knows, rather than describing the function that they need. So it becomes easiest to find an existing vendor and give them the technical specifications,” Bryant said. To adopt an alternative platform, IT managers likely will have to drive basic changes in the procurement process.

A key to success for government agencies looking to adopt ODF is engagement in the open standards community through organizations like the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

“Having governments in there to talk about technical requirements and procurement needs is gold to the vendors who want to help solve the problems,” Lounsbury said. “When the client can bring the problem, that is what enables the vendors to bring the solution.”

Just as with open source, the open platform agenda is one of transparency and collaboration. The greatest strength of an open platform, its universality, is best served when all interested parties share their input. “Community is the real secret behind any open format project. You are not doing it all by yourself,” said Driver.

When doing the pro-and-con analysis, global governments may well count user satisfaction among the upsides. In a very literal way, open formats support the growing trend of autonomy and bringing one’s own device to the workplace. Open platform applications that run on laptops and tablets will be readily accessible to an agency’s open platform systems. “This stuff opens up like a charm on anybody’s machine,” said Liscia.

And, he added, that’s just how it should be. “Governments need a format that allows them to pass data from one place to another transparently. If transparency is the essence of democracy, why would the tools we use not be as transparent as our system?”

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer