Two and a half years ago, I wrote The Norwegians get it!. Now the government has released the next stage of their open formats policy: New obligatory IT standards for the state sector adopted. So is it a step forward or back, IMHO?
The thing that stands out about it to me is the dates:
- From 2010-01-01 ODF 1.1 (not ODF 1.0) will be used. This is no big deal. But I bet they wished that Open Formula was an actual standard: the slow pace of getting at least something out there undermines the spreadsheet story.
- From 2011-01-01 attachment documents in government emails will use ODF or PDF only. This is fundamentally a retirement of .RTF and .DOC. This gives another year for implementations to get up to scratch.
- From 2012-01-01 multimedia content must be in open formats. Good to see that Norway has resisted the urge to limit themselves to ISO MP3 and ISO MP4 ACC H.264 (which is subject to IP licensing in countries that accept the particular patents involved) but have also endorsed the Oggs. (I don't know how many governments adopt the US system, where the government waives patent rights in its own favour: the US can hardly object. It seems the least that should happen: I know it is impossible to avoid MP3 and MP4, but at the least royalty-bearing technologies, no matter how standard, should not be entrenched or favoured for public-sector public document/media file formats.)
- From 2012-01-01 UTF-8 will be the character encoding for text. A good decision.
These all seem the right way to do things: a user decides what it needs for specific uses, is pragmatic or generous about timing, and doesn't exclude any of the technical eco-systems from equal participation. I think it also represents a real challenge to the software vendors: starting 2011 they will have to compete in this market on feature-completeness, quality and support, not file format or value-adds: they won't have the supposed lock-in to benefit or excuse them from providing value.
A friend of mine, a former political advisor to a party sometimes in power here, commented to me once that governments lead by surfing: they cannot get too far ahead or behind the wave (of public opinion, of technological possibilities.) Governments are often not in a forcing position but a re-inforcing position. So I think the Norwegians are being a good model again.
The sky didn't fall in 2008: IS29500 has not been the threat to IS26300 that was claimed by the marketeers and professional panic-merchants. ODF adoption is going ahead calmly, but certainly no faster than the standards and implementations can support. Other government standards and procurement people will be interested and positive about Norway's approach, I am sure.
[Update: Another thing struck me. That is that the Ogg formats are not actually standards in any formal sense. The Xiph foundation is not set up as a standards body per se. According to their website they are is a non-profit corporation dedicated to protecting the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests. Our purpose is to support and develop free, open protocols and software to serve the public, developer and business markets. However, the specifications are stable, free, attempt to be unencumbered by I"P" issues, implementable, and look good quality. When royalty-bearing standards excludes a particular technical eco-system, so it is not surprising that governments, when looking at standard technologies, will have to go beyond conventional standards bodies on equitable grounds.]