The problem is that public information can be locked in proprietary software whose document formats become obsolete or cannot be read by people using software from another company.
To cope with the problem, 30 companies, trade groups, academic institutions and professional organizations are expected to announce on Friday the formation of the OpenDocument Format Alliance, which will promote the adoption of open technology standards by governments.
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"The goal is to ensure that the largest number of people possible are able to find, retrieve and meaningfully use government information," said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of government relations for the American Library Association, a member of the alliance.
The problem, she said, is bad and getting worse. She noted that the National Archives and Records Administration was engaged in a costly project so the electronic documents it saves from federal agencies can be opened and read.
The alliance supports a particular solution, called the OpenDocument Format, for standard office word processing, presentation and spreadsheet documents. Today, the formats used by most people for creating documents are those in Microsoft Office--more than 90 percent of the market.
The alliance includes professional groups like the library association and universities like the Indian Institute of Technology. Its membership also includes many rivals to Microsoft in the software business, including IBM and Sun Microsystems, which offer office software that uses the OpenDocument Format.
"This is not a partisan, anti-Microsoft group," said Simon Phipps of Sun.
But Microsoft supports another open standard for documents, called OpenXML Document Format. In Office 2007, which Microsoft will ship in the second half of the year, OpenXML will be the default format for saving documents instead of Microsoft's proprietary formats, said Alan Yates of the company's Office division.
The OpenXML format is supported by Intel, Apple Computer, Toshiba, BP and the British Library, among others, Yates said. Microsoft submitted OpenXML to Ecma International, a standards body in Geneva, last year.
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