Belgian government chooses OpenDocument

Plan requiring government adoption of format puts further pressure on Microsoft to embrace open standards.

In a blow to Microsoft, Belgium's government departments will be instructed to use an open file format for internal communications.

The OpenDocument Format (ODF) is to be the standard format for exchanging documents within the government, according to a proposal that is expected to be approved by Belgium's Council of Ministers on Friday. The plan increases the pressure from governments worldwide on Microsoft to embrace open standards.

From September 2008 on, all document exchanges within the services of the Belgian government will have to be in an open, standard format, according to the proposal. ODF is the only accepted standard in the proposal. Earlier drafts of the Belgian proposal had put ODF and Microsoft's own Open XML format (which is to be included in Office 2007) on equal footing.

Peter Strickx, general manager for architecture and standards of Fedict, the organization that coordinates the ICT policy of the Belgian federal government, commented on the proposal in an interview with ZDNet Belgium.

"Increasingly, we are seeing e-mail and electronic documents being used in communication between citizens and the government and between companies and the government," Strickx said. "To avoid becoming dependent on any particular supplier, we are moving towards open standards." A draft of ODF was accepted by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in May.

From September 2008 onwards, Belgium's federal services must use ODF when exchanging documents, though other formats will still be allowed for internal use, Strickx confirmed. However, Belgium is leaving the door open for Open XML.

"Open XML today does not exist, as there is no product on the market that supports it. Once it is available as a product and proposed to the ISO, it is possible that the format will also be accepted," Strickx said. However, there will be an additional hurdle: Open XML must also be proven to be easily convertible to and from ODF.

This would appear to leave Microsoft with a simple choice: Convince the Belgian government that Open XML is an open standard well on the way to ISO-approval, or support ODF. The latter may be the simpler task, as the OpenDocument Foundation is already working on a plug-in for Microsoft Office that would add ODF support.

However, Strickx would not confirm that the Belgian government is envisaging a migration away from Microsoft Office and toward software that supports ODF, such as Open Office. "We are analyzing the impact" of the move to an open format for document exchange on the internal software usage, Strickx said.

Belgium would be the first country to opt for open document standards in this way.

According to Strickx, the Belgian strategy is likely to gain a following. He claimed France and Denmark are considering similar moves.

Dominique Deckmyn of ZDNet Belgium reported from Brussels.

 

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