The OpenDocument Format (ODF) has moved an important step closer to widespread adoption by the UK government with the publication of an internal Cabinet Office report recommending its use.

The statement of intent on ODF is short and rather buried in the small print of a much larger action plan for open source use in the UK public sector, but the ‘action point' near the end of Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan [PDF]  is still significant.

"Open Standards: The Government will specify requirements by reference to open standards and require compliance with open standards in solutions where feasible. It will support the use of OpenDocument Format as well as emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards," it says, referring to the Microsoft-backed OOXML (Office Open XML) rival to ODF.

"It will work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites."

The endorsement can be read in a number of ways, including the pragmatic desire to sit on the fence between the competing claims in the heated ODF v OOXML controversy, but the fact that ODF is mentioned first and by name has been seized on by the ODF Alliance.

"What we have now are the European heavyweights behind ODF," said ODF Alliance managing director, Marino Marcich. The backing of the UK would be seen in countries such as the US - the last great holdout against formal statements of intent - as important.

He did accept, however, that there the process through which open formats were accepted had some way to go. "Open source is not something you turn on like a light switch. Translating words into deeds is key."

The nub of the controversy between the two formats: "Microsoft's OOXML was fast-tracked into the status of a global standard by the ISO (international organisation for standardisation), a process that made open source advocates in countries around the world unhappy. From the perspective of open source, OOXML is a proprietary standard because it is tied to the company's Office app suite.

Office 14, scheduled for release next year, is supposed to be the first to implement it in an ISO/IEC IS 29500-compliant form, but some have claimed that its interoperability remains to be demonstrated. The OASIS (Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) -created ODF, by contrast, is already in use in OpenOffice.

Outside the US, we have continent-wide support for ODF," said Marich. "[Where] proprietary formats dominate, that is becoming unacceptable to the majority of governments."
The report got a similarly enthusiastic interpretation form Marich's ally, OpenForum Europe chief executive, Graham Taylor.

"The fact that the UK government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and require solutions to comply with open standards is a significant development that will ensure competition among multiple competing products on different platforms," he commented.