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Government to trade Microsoft Office for open source

parliament

By Nicole Kobie

Posted on 29 Jan 2014 at 08:45

The Cabinet Office is set to advise government to standardise on file formats and end its dependence on proprietary software - such as Microsoft Office.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude is today expected to announce plans to break away from expensive proprietary software, according to a Press Association report, which said £200 million has been spent by the government on Microsoft Office alone since 2010.

"The software we use in government is still supplied by just a few large companies," he will reportedly say in his speech. "A tiny oligopoly dominates the marketplace."

Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution

He will call for a "greater range" of software to be used, so staff aren't limited to one specific brand. He also wants to make it easier to collaborate and share documents.

That, he will say, is best achieved by standardising on document formats, to make it easier to use a wider range of software.

"Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution," his speech reads. "But be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open Whitehall's lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn we will open the door for a host of other software providers."

SMB focus

Along with those changes, the Cabinet Office will look to boost the number of contracts going to smaller IT companies - a promise the government has made before.

Indeed, the report added that central government purchasing has shifted from 6% in 2010 to 10% now.

"In the civil service there was a sense that if you hired a big multi-national, who everyone knew the name of, you'd never be fired," Maude will say.

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User comments

Call me cynical but

I can't help thinking they'll perhaps save £200m on MS licences but it'll cost far more in consultancy and training fees to implement the new software. It might be a good time to become a certified Open/Libre office consultant. Ker-ching! :)

By rjp2000 on 29 Jan 2014

Yep

and you'll have to learn to console the power users who can no longer use their documents or have to find other ways of accomplishing tasks.

As a long time Open Office user, I still always had a copy of MS Office around for more complex tasks and for checking formatting, before sending it out.

As to standardised file formats, the MS Office file formats are an international, free standard, with more functionality than the OO.o format...

By big_D on 29 Jan 2014

That is fairly cynical rjp2000

Even if there are large fees involved in retraining, (and there really shouldn't be, so similar are the alternatives) they'll be one-off fees. The £200m on MS licenses is an ongoing expense - if its £200m over 4 years, then its reasonable to assume its £400m over 8, £600m over 12 etc, etc. Even if it were to be more expensive, (and I don't believe it would be) having government standards that are open to more than just one single (foreign) company has to be a good thing.

By Mr_John_T on 29 Jan 2014

Yes, Minister

Didn't Jim Hacker try and impose a word-processing standard over 30 years ago? It didn't work then ...

By TBennett on 29 Jan 2014

Open office problems to come

What happens when one area has Apache and another Libre

I can see big problems ahead and IT pulling hair out. As well as the fact of other companies using Microsoft Office it will cause all kinds of headache

By Jason_Field on 29 Jan 2014

Document compatibility

Oddly I seem to remember one Government department (can't remember which) sending us a tender document in OpenOffice document format - and we had to scrabble around to find the converter to Microsoft Office .DOC format.

By JohnGray7581 on 29 Jan 2014

He doesn't know what he's talking about

He wants a mish-mash of different programmes and simultaneously wants to make it easier to collaborate and share...??

Doomed to failure.

By Mark_Thompson on 29 Jan 2014

"Make it so...."

More ill-educated drivel from the Tory elite.

As nearly every other commenter has said, this will make for a field-day for hosts of "Business Process Experts", Consultants, IT gurus and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

A key problem is likely to be tension between a "common format" and using a "greater range" of software.

As has also been pointed-out by others MS's Office formats are now "Open", which doesn't stop the "Open Source" brigade from being unable properly to implement them.

And finally we come to the "oligopoly" crack. So how does he see this actually happening?
Will all the transitional work be tendered to SMEs, or will the "usual suspects" (Capita et al) end-up with all the cream? (answers on a postcard to Francis Maude).

I can see this costing 10 times the £50million pa. he claims is being spent on MS software.

Like his mates Govey & Cameron he assumes that a ministerial diktat is the same thing as a carefully worked-out plan.....

By wittgenfrog on 29 Jan 2014

ODF should have been the standard ages ago

£200 million = $ 331.58 million
That's a lot of money. So I am expecting lots of dirty tricks from MonopoliSt.

The question is are the Brits up to the challenge & can they out-maneuver the shills & bribes?

By IndainArt on 29 Jan 2014

Document compatibility

Oddly I seem to remember one Government department (can't remember which) sending us a tender document in OpenOffice document format - and we had to scrabble around to find the converter to Microsoft Office .DOC format.

By JohnGray7581 on 29 Jan 2014

@IndainArt

Whilst I'm no more attached to a Monopoly than you appear to be, your jibe about "shills & bribes" really doesn't cut it.

MS certainly does have a very tight grip on the "Productivity Software" market, and for numerous good reasons.

First and foremost is that historically and currently its simply better than any of the alternatives. Its more developed, easier to use, more reliable, and more robust.

Secondly notwithstanding the old saw about nobody using more than 10% of the features, they're there, and I for one dip into them frequently. I suspect that the 90% is increasingly more used as Offices lose dedicated typists and PAs in favour of "Executive" DIY.

And finally, do you seriously think that am assortment of "bribes" & "shilling" isn't employed by all the others?

By wittgenfrog on 29 Jan 2014

@Mr_John_T

As others have pointed out, the Office formats are open international standards, so that isn't an issue. As for your comment: "Even if there are large fees involved in retraining, (and there really shouldn't be, so similar are the alternatives) they'll be one-off fees." Superficially, they are similar but as they say the devil is in the detail, and no other Office package has the breadth of functionality of MS Office, so there will, I suspect, be cases where the alternatives will involve significant loss of functionality and/or require a massive development effort to implement. And we no how good the Govt is at handling development projects!!

By rjp2000 on 29 Jan 2014

About time

All the complaints about Office having higher functionality are for many users moot; most people just need a simple letter writer! Some of the more esoteric functions just aren't needed by many.

In Germany Open Source software is the Government standard and that saves the parsimonious German government hundreds of millions too.

Just wait for the Bill Gates charm offensive with visits to Downing Street and sudden offers of 'charitable' giving to schools or others to sweeten the deal - it worked when Tony Blair was PM.

By SwissMac on 29 Jan 2014

@swissmac

Do you mean National or Regional Government?

Irrespective of that the big difference between UK & Germany is that in Germany technical people, practical people and Engineers are all highly respected, both in Society at large, and by Government.

Whilst I'm not aware of the details of Germany's "Open Source" arrangements, I'm pretty sure that whatever they have has been thought-through and not just decided on a slow newsday by a technically illiterate career politician.

By wittgenfrog on 29 Jan 2014

ODF should have been the standard ages ago

£200 million = $ 331.58 million
That's a lot of money. So I am expecting lots of dirty tricks from MonopoliSt.

The question is are the Brits up to the challenge & can they out-maneuver the shills & bribes?

By IndainArt on 29 Jan 2014

Why I support LibreOffice / OpenOffice

@wittgenfrog

I am quite concerned about all this after reading the following:
"1993 Microsoft uses Monopoly power to kill Word Perfect
The next challenge to the Microsoft Monopoly was a word processor called Word Perfect – which until 1993 had a higher market share than Microsoft Word. One of the purposes for the constant model changes in Windows was to create incompatibility with Word Perfect. Novell, which owned Word Perfect, recently brought a lawsuit against Microsoft for this predatory practice. As evidence that Microsoft used model changes to give Word and Office an advantage, Novell produced a 1994 email from Bill Gates that states:
"I have decided that we should not publish these extensions. We should wait until we have a way to do a high level of integration that will be harder for likes of Notes, WordPerfect to achieve, and which will give Office a real advantage . . . We can't compete with Lotus and WordPerfect/Novell without this.".... Bill Gates 1994
The failure to publish the extensions meant that Word Perfect was not compatible with Windows 95 when it was released in 1995 – and that led to the death of Word Perfect as shown on the following chart:"

www.freeyourselffrommicrosoftandthensa.org

By IndainArt on 29 Jan 2014

Anyone who has had to try opening a DOC file in Word that has been created by LibreOffice will know this is *not* a move towards compatibility.

By halsteadk on 29 Jan 2014

MS-Office is already a useful standard. Government should be using their considerable purchasing power to negotiate a better deal and their political skills to enforce a better deal for the rest of us.

By mypointis on 29 Jan 2014

@mypointis
Saying that you are considering using a rival product is precisely what you'd expect the government to say when a contract renewal process is under way. You can be sure that this is what it is all about.

By vjosullivan on 30 Jan 2014

Curious

This is a curious development given that Parliament (IE houses of Commons and Lords, the MPs, Lords, secretaries and support staff) has recently decided to standardise on Microsoft Office 365.

By Simon_Jones_RWC on 30 Jan 2014

Its the format not the money or the software!

This is a great move, an interface standard, much to be encouraged, the right technical move. It does not need to be either ODF or DOC, and maybe needs to be some public XML DTD like DocBook or TEI. Lets encourage them.

The suppliers of software then can compete on the usability, price etc of their offer. They can even get on with their commercial practices as usual, not that we should encourage them. I stopped using Windows because of the frequent changes of interface: just as I got used to the finer details of how it worked and how I could make it sing for me, they changed it. I moved to Macs, but now a decade or so later they have also caught the MS add-more-features-change-for-changes-sake philosophy, adding complexity and losing robustness. Word on the Mac has been getting progressively more unstable, and I was about the switch to Apple's Pages, but they have changed it recently losing functionality that I depended upon. Why can't they leave well-enough alone? Is it time for me to switch to Linux and Open Office?

Clearly the government should not do this on their own, they need to consult UK technical experts of which we have many; and where better than through the BSI? It should not require large consultants fees, but of course doing it through BSI will take several years. Groan. This should have been done years ago.

By PatHall1 on 30 Jan 2014

and the struggles goes on

I am in the process of trying to persuade a school that its year 1 pupils will more than likely NOT be using MS products in 10 years. Why? Because the current IT buyers will have retired, mobile computing will dominate and the new generation will have a greater appreciation of the alternatives available and be more IT mobile, just as my children are compared to me.
Open Standard means just that. Cross platform across all platforms. I think when people talk about how powerful a product is compared to another it usually implies they are scared of change. Yes maybe your spreadsheet may contain complex formulae, pivot tables but so what? I hope on 10 years time cross communication in ways we can all achieve using the simplest of tools will be the way forward, not more complexity. I applaud the government for at least mentioning it despite its double standards. Other countries have happy adopted open standards, but I suspect that's because they are more IT liberal than here in the UK. BTW why do people only mention OpenOffice, if you do some R&D youll see the other options including the one you may be reading this on.

By seirra on 30 Jan 2014

NO NO NO - Don't Do It!!!

No one in a serious business knows how bad the alternatives to Microsoft Office are until they've been using them for 6 months straight. My department decided to cut costs 6 month ago during a PC refresh and we lost our 'now loved' Microsoft Office.

We're currently using LibreOffice which at first glance appears fine for everyday use, 6 months on and we're still pulling our hair out, it's simply not reliable enough for business use. One very simple example is that Calc randomly stops calculating some cells, which is really helpful considering its most primary function is to add numbers together! The only fix is to close the application and reopen it, for business this is ridiculous, you may not even notice if it's stopped calculating until it’s too late, in our case staff resourcing was nearly screwed up as a result.

Bugs with applications such as Impress just decrease productivity, just last week I created a pretty accurate template for the department to use, I saved it and then 2 minutes later reopened it to find the layout all messed up, fonts were completely different sizes and styles, no longer fitting within their text boxes etc, more time wasted to try and put right what LibreOffice messed up.

Features are also missing, for example, opening OLE embedded file attachments is near on impossible, if they do open they open in a 32 x 32 pixel square rather than a separate application, not good if historically people have distributed files with other files inside.

Thunderbird is also no Outlook, we sync our mail and calendar accounts with an online provider and at first glance Thunderbird isn’t a bad alternative. Yet again there are bugs present, this time they cause the application to lock up, the user closes it and the background process hands, more technical users can kill the process from task manager but less technical staff have no idea why Thunderbird won’t open back up and end up wasting productive time restarting their PC or asking colleagues for help.

After 6 months of using this ‘rubbish’ I can clearly see why Microsoft Office is so expensive, because at the end of the day it works and boosts productivity compared with the ‘free’ alternatives. I wouldn’t let my kids use the free alternatives for school, and from experience any serious business/government should fully investigate and carry out long trials with free/open source solutions before jumping ship.

By Samo42 on 30 Jan 2014

Its the format not the money or the software!

This is a great move, an interface standard, much to be encouraged, the right technical move. It does not need to be either ODF or DOC, and maybe needs to be some public XML DTD like DocBook or TEI. Lets encourage them.

The suppliers of software then can compete on the usability, price etc of their offer. They can even get on with their commercial practices as usual, not that we should encourage them. I stopped using Windows because of the frequent changes of interface: just as I got used to the finer details of how it worked and how I could make it sing for me, they changed it. I moved to Macs, but now a decade or so later they have also caught the MS add-more-features-change-for-changes-sake philosophy, adding complexity and losing robustness. Word on the Mac has been getting progressively more unstable, and I was about the switch to Apple's Pages, but they have changed it recently losing functionality that I depended upon. Why can't they leave well-enough alone? Is it time for me to switch to Linux and Open Office?

Clearly the government should not do this on their own, they need to consult UK technical experts of which we have many; and where better than through the BSI? It should not require large consultants fees, but of course doing it through BSI will take several years. Groan. This should have been done years ago.

By PatHall1 on 30 Jan 2014

Its the format not the money or the software!

This is a great move, an interface standard, much to be encouraged, the right technical move. It does not need to be either ODF or DOC, and maybe needs to be some public XML DTD like DocBook or TEI. Lets encourage them.

The suppliers of software then can compete on the usability, price etc of their offer. They can even get on with their commercial practices as usual, not that we should encourage them. I stopped using Windows because of the frequent changes of interface: just as I got used to the finer details of how it worked and how I could make it sing for me, they changed it. I moved to Macs, but now a decade or so later they have also caught the MS add-more-features-change-for-changes-sake philosophy, adding complexity and losing robustness. Word on the Mac has been getting progressively more unstable, and I was about the switch to Apple's Pages, but they have changed it recently losing functionality that I depended upon. Why can't they leave well-enough alone? Is it time for me to switch to Linux and Open Office?

Clearly the government should not do this on their own, they need to consult UK technical experts of which we have many; and where better than through the BSI? It should not require large consultants fees, but of course doing it through BSI will take several years. Groan. This should have been done years ago.

By PatHall1 on 30 Jan 2014

what a rubbish blog site! or browser?

I could not understand why some postings happened more than once, but now I know - in order to refresh my access to the site, I did a reload (Safari) and that seems to have led to the multiple postings. My apologies, you are probably going to get a third copy of my post.

I will have to close this tab and open a new tab with a new load of this PC Pro issue. Yuc!

By PatHall1 on 30 Jan 2014

Samo42 is correct - The alternatives are aweful

I couldn't have put it better. For large organisations with complex spreadsheets and Exchange, there is no better solution. The government are clueless.

By qwerty on 30 Jan 2014

format and future proofing

We need to clear here – document format defines how the document is stored – NOT how the document is produced. Standardizing on a formats such as ODF would not preclude the use of Microsoft Office - for if a compulsary standard were required - MS would very quickely comply to remain competitive. With document format standardization it should not matter what software you use.

Document formats standardization is essential and the ODF seried of formats should be fine as they are designed for office applications – being both robust and extensible – no need to re-invent the wheel. It is an existing XML based open standard (as is HTML) and is already published as an ISO/IEC international standard. It time to get away from proprietary formats that are tweeked for commercial advantage and at the same time locking you to one supplier.

Compusary standardization would additionally open the door to open source and proprietary software running side-by-side – thus allowing informed fit-for-function choices. It should also give a degree of future proofing. I have historical documents dating back before PC's. Fortunately I had the foresight to convert to new formats as they came along. A bit of a chore but at least they are still accessable. A standard format should remove the need for conversions. Initially I had considered retaining copies of the original software used for their production but quickly realised it was becoming redundant and would no longer run on upgraded systems. A perennial problem for archavists.

By Venastas on 30 Jan 2014

format and future proofing

We need to clear here – document format defines how the document is stored – NOT how the document is produced. Standardizing on a formats such as ODF would not preclude the use of Microsoft Office - for if a compulsary standard were required - MS would very quickely comply to remain competitive. With document format standardization it should not matter what software you use.

Document formats standardization is essential and the ODF seried of formats should be fine as they are designed for office applications – being both robust and extensible – no need to re-invent the wheel. It is an existing XML based open standard (as is HTML) and is already published as an ISO/IEC international standard. It time to get away from proprietary formats that are tweeked for commercial advantage and at the same time locking you to one supplier.

Compusary standardization would additionally open the door to open source and proprietary software running side-by-side – thus allowing informed fit-for-function choices. It should also give a degree of future proofing. I have historical documents dating back before PC's. Fortunately I had the foresight to convert to new formats as they came along. A bit of a chore but at least they are still accessable. A standard format should remove the need for conversions. Initially I had considered retaining copies of the original software used for their production but quickly realised it was becoming redundant and would no longer run on upgraded systems. A perennial problem for archavists.

By Venastas on 30 Jan 2014

It's too late now()

There are only two reasons for .gov not to use Microsoft Office products: -

1 Security (NSA accessing all your data)
2 Cost

There are simply no alternatives available with the same depth or automation integration (which is not that good in office anyway) but the alternatives are years behind.

Excel and Access virtually run our economy with Word in constant use throughout all .gov departments and the NHS. Changing this to any other product is just not feasible.

What is feasible is to re-negotiate the MS licences cost and maybe move (over 10 years) to another solution, but again there aren’t any - either on the horizon or existing.

This is a decision that could only have made ten years ago… it’s too late now; MS has you by the throat.

By dholbon on 30 Jan 2014

It's never too late

I've been Microsoft-free for 3 years now. Look at the Munich success and see what's possible!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LiMux

By Col_Panek on 30 Jan 2014

stating the obvious

It is long overdue for our government to standardize on open standards rather than using propriatory interfaces and having to pay for upgrades every time microsoft change the user interface. For the vast majority of documents and spreadsheets used in business the OpenOffice/LibreOffice are easier to use and better suited to the purpose.
(I have used MS Office for over 10 years)
Once users are familiar with the new tools they will wonder why we ever threw so much money at MS for such junk

By timray123 on 31 Jan 2014

Easier to use - which bits?

@timray123 Do you really consider the LibreOffice easier to use for the vast majority of spreadsheets? I've been using MS Office apps since MS Dos days and find LibreOffice painful for certain tasks. Take Calc's find tool for example, compared with Excel it's as basic as it gets, using it to search through 10k row spreadsheets is horrendous. Within conditional formatting you can't just make cell format changes, instead you have to first create a separate style and then apply that to the condition. How about removing duplicates from a large dataset, in Excel you click about 2 buttons, in Calc it's a convoluted time consuming process of mix and matching filters to try and get the end result. Simpler still how about moving rows to another location in the spreadsheet, in Excel you right click the rows, click cut and then paste then in elsewhere, try that in Calc and it's nowhere near as simple.

By Samo42 on 31 Jan 2014

Microsoft's current file format IS a "standard"

Well let's get to the "meat" first.

MS had numerous problems gaining accreditation for its Open XML. ISO were relatively sanguine, but the usual suspects (Like IBM) copped a strop in Europe.

Similarly MS Office products can read\write ODF formatted files. Indeed you can choose the default format at install time and use either ODF or OXML.

So that's both the "standards" canards shot to pieces. MS Office both reads & writes in BOTH of the popular "Open" document formats.

The costs quoted by Mr Maude are, to put it mildly, "vague". Has "The Government" (Local, National, Parliament...?) spent the £200mill solely on Office, or is that the total bill for ALL MS products & software?
Does the £200M relate solely to the price of buying licences, or does it include the costs of planning, implementation and on-going management that HMG's "partners" charge for their services.
Anyone who's looked at the various service contracts with the big IT companies will know that licencing costs do not constitute the bulk of the cost of implementation.

If you accept this notion, then I fail to fathom why a "non-proprietary" solution should be that much cheaper

Let's consider the "Free" alternative. Sadly, for a serious "Corporate" entity there isn't one.
Rolling-out tens of thousands (even hundreds) of seats of Business computers & software is a non-trivial task. It will cost, big time.

You can bet your bottom dollar (pound, yen, euro etc) that a very small number or very large firms would end-up with the bulk of the (OUR) cash.

We've seen the outcomes of Government trusting these suppliers on various big projects that have cost billions, and mainly failed.
Seconds away round 2,3,4,5....

By wittgenfrog on 31 Jan 2014

Local assistance...

Hi wittgenfrog - surely the UK Gov't will need the assistance of commercial enterprises to help them effect this substantial change. Of course, the main benefits will be that a) those enterprises are likely to be UK-owned (and tax-paying) and b) they'll have to compete rather than rest on the laurels of an illegal monopoly. Yes, there will be a cost of transition (the migration cost is completely dependent on the practices of the incumbent vendor when that controls both the technology stack and the data formats - sadly, it's difficult with the current contracts to hold the vendor accountable for "lock-in" practices. The gov't should review that). A move to open standards and open source is as close to a guarantee of lower costs as you can get. They'll definitely be below what the UK taxpayer would pay by staying with the incumbent US-owned monopolist.

By dangerpossum on 27 Feb 2014

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