The Open Document Format saw a significant increase in support and use last year, according to the ODF Alliance's 2007 report

Twelve countries and six regional governments have adopted "pro-ODF policies," according to the group, composed of companies and organisations that advocate for the format.

The latest countries are the Netherlands and South Africa, which require government agencies to use the format. Also, more than 40 applications now support ODF and the Alliance's membership ranks are set to rise above 500, according to the report.

"Considering where we started when we launched the alliance back in 2006, the developments in 2007 are amazing in terms of the progress that has been made," said Marino Marcich, managing director of the group.

"It's one thing to recognise ODF as a matter of policy in an enterprise architecture framework and another to mandate its use," he added. "Proprietary formats in the public sphere are going out of style and becoming unacceptable globally."

The ODF Alliance's report marks another chapter in the long-brewing debate over Microsoft's Office Open XML document format and ODF, which is supported by the likes of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice application suite and Google's hosted productivity software.

OOXML is the native file format in Microsoft Office 2007, and Microsoft is attempting to get it recognised as a standard. ODF advocates have lambasted OOXML, calling it far too proprietary to warrant such a stamp of approval.

Marcich echoed that charge. "Microsoft certainly has the right to advance its proprietary format," he said. "What it doesn't have the right to do is call OOXML open and interoperable. ... We'd love it if Microsoft supported ODF in its products natively."

Despite the prevalence of Office software, ODF nonetheless has a chance to thrive, Marcich argued.

Today, he noted, Microsoft's .doc format, not OOXML, is still dominant. "If the question is 'what is the future,' clearly ODF has the lead right now," he said.

OOXML cannot supplant .doc until the majority of organisations and users upgrade to Office 2007, he noted, a process that will not occur imminently.

"We have a window here where governments have time to make a decision as to upgrading," he said. "I think 2008 will be a critical year as to which format will emerge as the format of the future."

Another ODF advocate, Andy Updegrove, also expressed pleasure over ODF's adoption to date and optimism about its future. "The tipping point has been passed. I don't think it will lead to a deluge, but progress will continue," said Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston. Updegrove serves as legal counsel to technology companies as well as standards bodies, including OASIS, and closely tracks the ODF-OOXML saga on his blog.

Updegrove predicted that 2008 will be "a tough year for Office," pointing beyond ODF and OOXML to broader trends in computer usage. "The monolithic idea of an office suite is really eroding, and the younger you are, the more meaningless it becomes," he said.

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment by the end of last week.

Another win for ODF in the US could come soon. New York officials are expected to decide which format the state will use in its systems. The public comment period for the matter had originally been scheduled to end on 28 December, but an updated document on the state's website indicates that the period has been extended to 18 January.