July 5, 2006

Belgian government chooses OpenDocument

Author: Koen Vervloesem

Belgium's Council of Ministers last month approved a proposal that requires federal government departments to use open file formats for exchanging documents. As it stands now, the only accepted standard is the Open Document Format (ODF). This increases the pressure on Microsoft to come up with support for open standards.

Peter Vanvelthoven, Minister of Employment and e-Government, explains: "Today the creation and exchange of office documents is based on different popular office suites, like Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect Office, OpenOffice.org ... It's not always easy to exchange documents with users of other software. But with XML and especially ODF we have a standard for the creation and storage of documents."

A draft of ODF was approved by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) in May. As soon as it receives final approval, Vanvelthoven says, "the federal government departments will have to use ODF for the exchange of office documents like text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations."

In a first phase, each federal government department must be able to read ODF files. There will be a transition period to take the necessary measures in order to maintain the continuity of the provision of services. "The exact timeline will depend on an impact study and the existence of adequate plugins to read and write the ODF format."


Peter Strickx is general manager for architecture and standards of Fedict, the government department that coordinates the ICT policy of the Belgian federal government. He says, "We made the choice for open standards because we want to advance interoperability between the different federal government departments. Two years ago the Council of Ministers approved a white book concerning the use of open standards and open specifications for public sector purchased software. The present note of the Council of Ministers made this guideline concrete for the federal government departments.

"The author of an ODF document knows that the receiver can read and edit the document," Strickx maintains. "This is possible in all word processors that support open standards, natively or with plugins."

Microsoft underscores the importance of open standards too. Frank De Graeve, PR manager of Microsoft Belgium, says, "We back the decision of the government to use open standards where it's possible. We also agree that XML-based file formats are the best solutions to store important information in a flexible way."

The note of the Council of Ministers holds only for federal government departments. This means that municipalities and provinces are not obliged to use open standards for document exchange. The same goes for communication between the government and citizens or companies. And "federal government departments are still allowed to use other formats internally," Strickx says. "Fedict promotes open standards because it's good for the interoperability. What the departments use internally is not the authority of Fedict."

Open standards, open doors

In the present note of the Council of Ministers, the only accepted format is ODF. Earlier drafts of the proposal also listed Microsoft's Open XML format, which is to be included in Office 2007, but that format has been removed because there is no software on the market that supports Open XML.

Despite the absence of Open XML in the present note, the Belgian government is leaving the door open for Microsoft's format. Once products support the format and it's proposed as a standard to ISO, it's possible the government may accept Open XML. At the other extreme, if Microsoft doesn't support ODF and if its own Open XML format doesn't get approved as an open standard, then the government departments will have to drop Microsoft Office. Consequently, Microsoft has the choice between getting Open XML approved as an open standard or supporting ODF. The latter may happen thanks to Microsoft's direct competitor: the OpenDocument Foundation is working on a plugin for Microsoft Office that supports ODF.

So the adoption of ODF doesn't necessarily mean that the Belgian government will migrate away from Microsoft Office. Fedict will do an impact study to choose the right strategy for the move to ODF. However, it's unlikely it will wait until the release of Microsoft Office 2007 or the ISO approval of Open XML, since both dates are in the indefinite future.

Open XML

Microsoft's De Graeve maintains that Open XML is on its way to acceptance as an official open standard. "In November last year we submitted the Open XML file format to the European standards body ECMA, and the admission procedure is going well. The fact that the open source community has used these specifications to develop a plugin to open Open XML files in OpenOffice.org proves that it's an open standard. It also proves that there is a need for a second XML-based open document format besides ODF. A few of our customers have already evaluated ODF and they have concluded that the file format didn't suit their needs."

As soon as ECMA accepts Open XML, Microsoft can submit the format to the ISO committee. If the format gets an ISO specification afterwards, the Belgian government can decide to use Open XML too. "But at the moment we are not able to tell when the ECMA and ISO procedures will get completed," De Graeve says. In the meantime, he says, Microsoft is researching whether ODF support in Microsoft Office would be a good solution for the government departments that use the office suite. "We will evaluate forthcoming ODF plugins as soon as possible."


The timeline of the ODF migration is another indefinite parameter. The first version of the press release of the Council of Ministers mentioned two dates: from September 2007 on, all federal government departments should be able to read ODF documents, and in September 2008 ODF would be the only accepted document format for exchange between departments. In the press conference after the Council of Ministers, Minister Vanvelthoven mentioned the September 2007 date. A few hours later, both dates had been removed from the press release. Strickx explains: "The first press release was not a correct reproduction of the decision of the Council of Ministers. Fedict is now working on a consensus on the dates between the IT managers. We will publish the dates as soon as the proposal has been approved." De Graeve adds: "Shortly after we read the press release, we have contacted the cabinet of Minister Vanvelthoven to get more information. We found a couple of things in the press release unclear. It seems Fedict agreed with us, because they distributed a new press release."

What the Belgian government's move to ODF means for Microsoft is still unclear, De Graeve says. "That's the reason we asked for an extra explanation concerning the exact decision of the Council of Ministers. Moreover, the timing of the decision is very complex because it depends on some developments which are ongoing. The certification of Open XML hasn't been completed yet, it's not yet completely clear if there will be qualitative good ODF plugins for Microsoft Office, and we haven't released Microsoft Office 2007 yet."

It remains to be seen what the decision of the Belgian government to use ODF for exchanging documents will yield. The exact details are still to come. But one thing is clear: open standards are on the map in Belgium, and software companies have to adapt if they want their products to be used by the government.


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