UK Government open document format proposals could save you money

Open Source Software – unless you knew already – is a term used to describe software that is essentially free to use. This has traditionally sets many a preconception alight in the minds of business owners – often along the lines of “it’s free for a reason” – i.e. no good.

This prejudice against open source is misguided. Every bit of software this website relies on is open source. The networking protocols that delivered the data over the internet, and quite likely the web browser you are using (unless you are still using Internet Explorer), are all effectively free. In fact most of our technological infrastructure depends on open source. And in most people’s eyes (including the author), that’s a good thing.

While the backbone of the internet has relied on open source developments for decades, end user’s have largely remained loyal to suppliers like Microsoft or Apple to provide their desktop experience and their main desktop software. This might have been understandable a decade ago, but no more – particularly when it comes to word processing, spreadsheets and other office apps. And here’s why.

Microsoft Office is an incredibly powerful suite of applications. Despite this, most users barely scrape the surface of what it can do. In fact, on Microsoft’s own blog it was revealed that the:

Top 5 Most-Used Commands in Microsoft Word 2003

  • Paste
  • Save
  • Copy
  • Undo
  • Bold

Together, these five commands account for around 32% of the total use in Word 2003… Beyond the top 10 commands or so, however, the curve flattens out considerably.

It’s unlikely that usage pattern has changed much since. To use a metaphor, we have all been buying and maintaining Supercars for going to the local corner shop for milk and sugar.

Does that make sense to you? Well, it doesn’t make sense to the government any more – and if those guys want to save a few pennies, then as a business owner why shouldn’t you?

Cabinet Office proposes to adopt Open Document Format (ODF)

ODF deals a blow to OOXML

ODF deals a blow to OOXML

In February the Cabinet Office threw open a consultation document to try and determine the best way to propagate government missives from .gov.uk organisations. The period for public feedback has just closed this weekend. This led to a very lively debate in the comments to the consultation which can still be read. While there were one or two supporters of Microsoft’s formats, they have been roundly slapped down in the debate.

The cheapest and fairest way to share editable documents between organisations and the public is to use a format that isn’t directly or indirectly under the control of, or gives advantage to a private company. While Microsoft insists the OOXML format is open, it is still regarded by the community as essentially proprietary and biased towards Microsoft’s advantage.

Open Document Format

What is Open Document Format?

ODF on the other hand has far better open source credentials and is a format that is supported far more broadly than Microsoft. If you want to go on paying premium prices for creating and reading office documents, then go ahead. If you want to pay nothing at all – then there are a couple of great open source alternatives.

LibreOffice and OpenOffice

These two projects have been going for some years. They actually began as OpenOffice but late in 2010 due to various historical reasons the LibreOffice project was born as a clone, and has since been developed independently. Both are open source projects.

There are versions of both packages for Windows, Mac and Linux available from

OpenOffice from the Apache Software Foundation LibreOffice from the Document Foundation

Both packages offer word processing, spreadsheet, database, presentation, drawing and math tools. They will open Microsoft Office documents, and can even save in a format that Microsoft Office can open. Of course, there is a learning curve in adjusting to these packages from Microsoft Office, but even Microsoft have forced people to adopt radical changes to their own user interfaces.

So, what are you waiting for? Come on in, the water’s warm – and the only think you have to lose is  a little time to get to grips with something that could save you a small fortune in licensing costs.

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