Open Standards, Closed Minds

Opinion: Standards groups like the ODF Alliance waste their time when focusing on state governments.

Today, I come to give praise and honor to a group that is fearless in its abilities to choose and deploy cutting-edge technologies. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you state governments!

Whats that? State governments dont tend to be fearless when it comes to innovative technologies? They tend to deal with layers of bureaucracy that make even the most conservative business look nimble?

Come to think of it, thats right! Governments are typically not the place one expects to see groundbreaking uses of new technologies. But if thats the case, why do open-standards bodies work so hard to woo governments?

The latest standards group to put on a full-court press to win the love of state governments is the ODF Alliance, which is pushing governments and states such as Massachusetts to adopt Open Document Format as a standard for public documents.

However, I think the alliance is making a mistake by putting so many of its eggs in the government basket.


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First, anecdotally, I cant think of many formats or standards I use today that owe their popularity to government deployments. If anything, governments tend to be behind the curve, often stuck using older technologies and formats.

But if the ODF Alliance shouldnt be pushing for government adoption, where should its focus be? I think the group should be working to make ODF more visible and usable in the applications and tools that people are already using. In fact, there is already an example where this approach is working very well for ODF.

Over the years, Ive been a heavy user of I cant think of one occasion during that time where someone sent me a document in ODF, but, in the last few months, Ive actually had several documents forwarded to me in ODF. Were those documents created in Open­ or StarOffice? Nope, they were created in Google Apps. And when I brought this up to a member of the ODF Alliance, he told me that since Google Apps went live, there has been a large increase in the number of ODF files found on the Internet.

So it seems that, thus far, one of ODFs biggest growth areas hasnt been government adoption; its been Google Apps adding ODF as a save option.

While Im not arguing that the alliance should completely forgo lobbying governments, I do think there needs to be more focus on getting the format into places where people will use it willingly.

When you look at most of todays ubiquitous formats, from .zip to MP3 to JPG, they didnt get to that point because a government chose them; they are what they are because people found them easy to create and use. Once the people choose to use a format such as ODF, the governments will follow. Thats because, when it comes to technology, government isnt fearless, and it usually isnt a leader.

Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at


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