UK Government plans to ditch Microsoft Office, move to open-source solutions

Microsoft has enjoyed a good deal of success in pitching its Office 365 solutions to government agencies and departments in the US. In August, the company announced that 120,000 government workers in the state of New York had been signed up, adding to similar agreements signed with Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City, among others. 

But across the pond in the United Kingdom, the government doesn't seem to have quite so much love for Office. As The Guardian reports, Her Majesty's Government is planning to overhaul its software procurement policies in a move that is intended to save tens of millions of pounds a year for the public purse. Since 2010, the UK public sector has reportedly spent a staggering £200m on Office licensing alone. 

Later today, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude will outline some of the considerations behind the plans to move away from Office, towards lower-cost open-source solutions. His remarks will refer to a "tiny oligopoly" of companies that currently dominate the supply of software and services to government departments, and the need to open up procurement to a broader range of suppliers in an effort to drive down costs and foster greater innovation. 

"We know the best technology and digital ideas often come from small businesses," Mr Maude will say, "but too often in the past, they were excluded from government work... We weren't just missing out on innovation; we were paying top dollar for yesterday's technology." 

A major component of the proposals will be a move to standardise document formats across government. Mr Maude will say: "Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution. But be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open [the government's] lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn, we will open the door for a host of other software providers." 

This will pave the way for a transition from Office to other productivity suites such as Google Docs and open-source solutions like OpenOffice which, the minister will say, will ensure that "civil servants have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular brand of software... This will help departments to do something as simple as share documents with each other more easily. But it will also make it easier for the public to use and share government information." 

Despite the UK Government's planned transition away from Office, many private sector organisations have opted to stick with Microsoft's suite, including global communications giant Telefónica and IAG, parent company of British Airways and Iberia. Last year, we reported on an IT consultancy that claimed it had seen many of its clients "flee Google Apps for Office 365". 

Source: The Guardian | Big Ben with notebook image via Shutterstock

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simplezz said,
LibreOffice doesn't need to open MS file formats. It can create, edit, and open an ISO standard called OpenDocument, which is its native file format.

You're not reading , are you ? Did you miss the point about "External communication"?
If municipalities are communicating internally and they've all agree to use Open Source format ( OTD etc) then there will be less of a problem .. ( aside the obvious fact that Libre office/Open Office have a ton missing features) .

The problem is that there is a lot of external communication most of which are in Proprietary Microsoft formats ( .doc/ppt/xls etc) ( because most companies and individuals use MS Office). Open Office /Libre office promises to handle these file formats well but in reality it does a very poor job at it, even in their most recent versions. This is where the problem is !

jrtorrents said,

You're not reading , are you ? Did you miss the point about "External communication"?

I read it clearly. They were using Office 2000 formats both internally and externally as exemplified by the statement:

Employees had trouble with documents that were formatted in a seemingly complete random way when opened in another office suite. There were also conversion problems between the presentation programs Power Point and Impress.

It's clear from that statement that they were importing, writing, editing, and saving in MS file formats. And this was on out-of-date software. They didn't even consider using ODF as a format standard. It's equivalent to buying old MS office software for all employees, then telling them to only work with ODF files. Then after experiencing compatibility / formatting problems when opening the files in LibreOffice, proceeding to blame Microsoft and MS Office as poorly implemented software. It's ludicrous.

And as the article I posted pointed out, Freiburg refused to update their OpenOffice software, which would have improved MS Office compatibility. So instead of updating, they just threw away all that work and money and went back to paying hefty licence fees. If I was a tax payer in that region, I would be seething with the complete lack of frugality shown by them.

jrtorrents said,

The problem is that there is a lot of external communication most of which are in Proprietary Microsoft formats ( .doc/ppt/xls etc)

There doesn't have to be. PDF, and ODF are readable almost universally. There's no excuse for using MS proprietary formats.

jrtorrents said,

( because most companies and individuals use MS Office).

Companies perhaps, but of the individuals claim I'm disposed toward incredulity. Again it certainly doesn't preclude said companies from opening ODF or PDF documents.

jrtorrents said,

Open Office /Libre office promises to handle these file formats well but in reality it does a very poor job at it, even in their most recent versions. This is where the problem is !

There will always be incompatibilities in places because proprietary formats are designed to prevent compatibility with competing systems. That's why governments shouldn't use them. ODF and PDF satisfy the need for universal access without vendor lock-in, and that's what Freiburg should have standardised on. The fact that they encountered problems with MS proprietary formats just intensifies that argument. They'd have problems migrating to any non-MS ecosystem regardless of whether it was FOSS based or not if they continue to depend on Microsoft proprietary formats.

simplezz said,

.. How do you store Spreadsheets and presentation in pdf and edit them in I future ?

I shouldn't even be wasting time arguing with you in this...

There doesn't have to be. PDF, and ODF are readable almost universally. There's no excuse for using MS proprietary formats.


Companies perhaps, but of the individuals claim I'm disposed toward incredulity. Again it certainly doesn't preclude said companies from opening ODF or PDF documents.


There will always be incompatibilities in places because proprietary formats are designed to prevent compatibility with competing systems. That's why governments shouldn't use them. ODF and PDF satisfy the need for universal access without vendor lock-in, and that's what Freiburg should have standardised on. The fact that they encountered problems with MS proprietary formats just intensifies that argument. They'd have problems migrating to any non-MS ecosystem regardless of whether it was FOSS based or not if they continue to depend on Microsoft proprietary formats.


I don't really care which software they use I care what format they use. This isn't so much of a problem now we have docx however a decade ago it was a pain to work with doc files outside of the Microsoft world. Still I would prefer they make documents available in totally open formats as well as docx and pdf. To be honest there isn't really a valid reason not to use XML and XSLT to make them super easy to work with.

Microsoft is/can be pricey and why people are considering other options. Used to be MS was the end all beat all only viable option out there. Not anymore, regardless of what you think about competing companies.

its like driving a car. some people are ok driving a beater, to save money, but you're going to have a lot of breakdowns,and you wouldn't want to be caught dead in it.

Open source has its place. It its not like its crapware or anything like that. Certain people/companies can benefit from it. But its up to the company/person to make sure it is right for them.

My company is evaluating Google Docs which everyone in IT is against 110 percent. But it is upper management that is evaluating it for $$$ reasons and is basically leaving the rest of IT out of it. Which will not go over well if they decide to go the Google docs route.

The same government still using windows xp machines. They are just tight and i am 100% that figure is just made up the government have a way with swindling numbers and hiding money here.

I have a friend in office who HAS to order DVD-R's from one place they cant just get them from the shop despite them being cheaper. He said he was paying over £100 for the DVD-R's (100 discs). The company they get them from (well have to get them from) is surprise surprise owned by one of those in power...

Corrupt system much?

Judging by recent UK Government projects, they'll probably spend more on open source than they do with Microsoft. Every system they've put in usually ends up being scrapped and costing Billions.

This is gonna reverberate throughout the UK creating pockets of a domino effect. The thing is, not every business and user will follow suit, which will eventually create interoperability problems. Can Microsoft stem this? Well, they need to do something about it and I believe the best way is to make licensing way more simple, drop the premium it charges, give away Office for little or nothing to non-profits and even some Government institutions such as schools. In this day and age, if you want loyalty, it comes at a cost, sometimes that cost is free.

They already offer it cheap as dirt to state schools, can't really complain at between £1.50 - £3 a license. This is true for all their products, it's what lets us run enterprise software like SCCM for next to nothing.

Will moving off the Windows platform be next? Yes, Office pricing is borderline rapacious. If they are running Windows-7, Windows-9 will be a huge factor in deciding whether or not to seriously consider leaving Windows OS for something else.

Have fun! We've heard this old chestnut before, and know how it ends. It's disheartening and yet somehow comforting to know that government is as inept all around the world as it is here in the States!

The true fact is that several government agencies already are using an alternative to MS Office. I know that exists some bad cases where they turned back to Office (Munich) but they are simple exceptions.
However, the major problem is to break the inertia.

I'm not sure why some people hate Office so much.

I get if you prefer an open source option and you want the cost savings, but why trash using Office?

I see people here that seem to be so against anyone using Office products when I've had really good experiences with Office products at home and in business. Office 365 has continued that good experience. None of that means other options are terrible and I'm sure some people will prefer how other options work.

As far as the UK's choice, they need to do what works best for them. I just hope that whoever is advising them is fairly weighing all the options and not just jumping on a bandwagon.

As another poster above said, "this is a ploy to get the licence costs down."

I wouldn't have put it quite like that myself, but this is clearly political manoeuvring on behalf of the Cabinet Office, just to let Microsoft know that the UK Government are willing to look at alternatives should the need arise.

The UK Government has, for years, had hundreds, if not thousands, of different individual agreements with Microsoft, often set up at the Departmental level. For years, the Government has been trying to reconcile these agreements and migrate to an overarching framework contract - essentially using their buying power to secure better pricing. And that is a good thing for the taxpayer.

That is what this article is about - it is absolutely not a declaration that the Government is moving to Google Docs or some open source product. At the moment, they are far too heavily invested in Microsoft technologies (including using Exchange for their secure email system) for it to make any technical or commercial sense.

Finally there's the security element of it. You can debate all day about the merits of open vs closed source in relation to security but GCHQ and it's department definitely have a "better the devil you know" attitude towards vendor selection. I don't believe they would recommend a move away from Microsoft.

That's what my five years in Central Government IT tells me.

Edited by Garry, Jan 30 2014, 2:17am :

Not surprised the usual MS haters (users who never, ever post anything sincerely positive about MS - or maybe 99% of the time) are here supporting this move. Hate to mention names, but I'm referring to Brony, Sonne, and TsarNikky as some examples. Open source is great, but hearing the same negativistic attitudes towards MS just because of pure dislike is as bad as hearing constant Google/Apple haters.

No criticism from them that Google Docs isn't technically open source though...

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