South Africa, Netherlands and Korea striding toward ODF

But France is still making the strongest move to ODF and its native office suite, OpenOffice

As Microsoft's Office Open XML document format remains in ISO limbo, a trio of countries are pushing forward an adoption of the alternative Open Document Format (ODF) instead, according to an ODF advocacy group.

Government ministries and state services in the Netherlands will begin to add ODF support next April, according to a statement from the Washington-based ODF Alliance. All other governmental organizations there are set to follow no later than December 2008.

Sander Ruiter of the Netherlands Directorate-General for Energy & Telecommunications presented details of the plan at the International ODF User Workshop in Berlin late last month.

ODF was approved by the ISO as an open standard in 2006.

South Africa sets guidelines

South Africa becomes the first country in Africa to adopt ODF as a government standard for exchanging documents between government agencies and the general public, according to a talk by Aslam Raffee, CIO of the Department of Technology for the South African government, at the same Workshop.

The country's latest Minimum Interoperability Standards v4.1 contains "an explicit definition of open standards as well as the inclusion of the ISO Open Document Format," according to Marino Marcich, executive director of the ODF Alliance. That effectively sets forth guidelines for all IT purchases by South African government agencies.

"We are very happy with the decision," Marcich said.

In Korea, the government's Agency for Technology and Standards approved ODF as a national standard several months ago. Marcich admitted that the Korean decision does not force agencies to use the ODF document format, but he said it "should carry weight" with officials deciding what format or formats to support.

The ODF Alliance now claims 500 members. By the alliance's count, 13 nations have announced laws or rules that favor the use ODF -- the native file format in the free, open-source OpenOffice productivity software -- over Microsoft's Office formats, such as Office Open XML.

Those nations include Russia, Malaysia, Japan, France, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

There has been no similar move in the US, though in a speech at Google last week Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama called for data to be stored in "universally accessible formats."

"We believe many governments and other organizations will continue to look to Open XML to meet their needs because it is designed to be compatible with billions of existing documents and its advanced technologies," wrote Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, in an e-mail. "People and organizations use data in a number of different ways and should have the option to choose the file format that best meets their needs."

Microsoft is awaiting an ISO decision next February whether to certify Open XML as an open standard similar to ODF. A positive result would help it prevent governments from defecting from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice and its equivalents.

France leads the charge

France is making the strongest move to ODF and its native office suite, OpenOffice. Nearly half a million government employees are being switched to OpenOffice.

But few other governments are matching France's zeal for dumping Microsoft Office. In Belgium, for instance, the government is using plug-ins to enable Microsoft Office to read and save files in ODF, Marcich said.

The same plug-ins are being used in Massachusetts, which was the first governmental body to move to ODF.

One prominent ODF backer, the unrelated Open Document Foundation, said in late October that it would stop backing ODF in favor of a more viable universal format called the Compound Document Format (CDF).

Marcich said that "won't have any effect on the alliance or on ODF" adoption. Moreover, CDF, which is a World Wide Web Consortium format, differs greatly in features and goals than ODF.

"We're talking about apples and oranges here," he said.

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