Dutch government eyes open source for interoperability, cost reduction

Proposed legislation that would mandate the use of the Open Document Format (ODF) across the entire Dutch government has infuriated Microsoft. A group promoting open standards sees no threat, however, and has invited Microsoft to join its ranks.

On Wednesday the Dutch parliament will discuss a plan to mandate use of the Open Document Format (ODF) at government agencies. The proposal is part of a wider plan to increase the sustainability of information and innovation, while lowering costs through the reuse of data.

Policy makers see interoperability as the key to achieving these goals and therefore recommend that open standards should be used whenever possible. Bodies that wish to deviate from the open standards policy can request a temporary stay, but have to show a timeline showing a planned implementation date – a policy described as “comply or explain.”

The proposal recommends the use of open source software if that’s a viable alternative over closed-source applications, which could give a major boost to applications like OpenOffice. Implementing the plan is expected to cost 8.45 million euros between 2008 and 2011.

By mandating ODF, however, the plan could disqualify Microsoft products. The software vendor doesn’t support ODF but instead backs its OpenXML format, which is pending approval as an open standard before the International Organization for Standardization.

Microsoft Netherlands has engaged in fierce lobbying in an attempt to derail the plan. The company argues that the current definition is too narrow, specifically by mandating ODF rather than open standards in general. “I wonder if you would be allowed to use standards like PDF, Wifi, GSM, XML, Bluetooth and mp3 within the government or if you would be bound to a comply or explain as well,” Theo Rinsema, general manager of Microsoft Netherlands, said to Webwereld, an IDG affiliate.

Although approval of OpenXML as an open standard is pending, Rinsema argued that the format should be treated as an equal alternative to ODF.

Rinsema fears that the current proposal could lead to discrimination against Microsoft products ranging from Office 12 to .Net, even though they offer a proper solution at a cost that is comparable to competing products.

The ban would also affect other IT vendors that partially base their products on Microsoft technologies, Microsoft cautioned. Rinsema singled out local partner company Orange Hill, which delivers open-source software based on Microsoft Windows.

“There is an ecosystem around our products that employs 170,000 people. They deliver all sorts of services,” said Rinsema. “With the uncertainty in the program, I wonder if they still have a license to operate.”

The OpenDoc Society, an organization that promotes the adoption of open standards and backer of ODF, claims that Microsoft is crying wolf.

“The choice in favor of ODF doesn’t exclude anybody. I fail to see why authorities cannot use Microsoft Office” said Ruud Vriens, CEO of RedNose and a founding member of the OpenDoc Society.

He points to plug-ins such as one developed by Sun Microsystems that enable the use of ODF in Office 12. Microsoft and Novell are working on another plug-in. “There is also no reason not to use .Net with this plan, since ODF-compatibility has been ensured with software.”

“This plan is not about Microsoft, it’s about ensuring the perpetual availability of data without any obstacles. Currently there are issues with OpenXML, they aren’t an official ISO-standard yet. And the way they tried to get the specification certified is questionable at least,” charged Vriens. “We would like to encourage Microsoft to join our ranks by becoming a participating member of our society. That would enable us to work with them to ensure an innovative and durable future so they can remain open for business.”

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