Taiwanese government standardises on true ODF document format

Abstract

Migration from proprietary document formats to the Open Document Format (ODF) in Taiwan had a slow start. ODF was made an official national standard in 2009 by the National Information and Communications Initiative Committee (NICI), but at that time nobody cared about its implementation. That was until July 2014, when the UK announced it would adopt ODF. In the wake of this decision the Taiwan National Development Council (NDC) started a series of policy discussions on how to proceed with the adoption of ODF.

In August 2015 the NDC launched a project to migrate the whole country of Taiwan to the ODF format. Execution of the programme was entrusted to the Software Liberty Association Taiwan (SLAT), a non-profit organisation promoting open-source software, and the Gjun training company.

Franklin Weng, member of the TDF Board of Directors and the President of SLAT, takes an unusual approach to push people to ODF and LibreOffice. "I never directly compare LibreOffice and Microsoft Office. Instead I attack the stability of Microsoft's OOXML format, which as a supposedly international standard should not change with every version of Office. When focusing on the differences between OOXML and ODF this way, the advantages of ODF become very obvious."

The Taiwanese model, in which policies require that documents generated by office productivity tools truly adhere to the ODF standard, can serve as an example to EU governments. It proves the strong relation there is between interoperability, open standards and open-source software.

Policy context

The migration from proprietary document formats to the Open Document Format (ODF) in Taiwan had a slow start. ODF (as well as PDF) was made an official national standard in 2009 (CNS-15251) by the National Information and Communications Initiative Committee (NICI), but at that time nobody cared about implementing it. That was until July 2014, when the UK announced that is would adopt ODF. In the wake of this decision the Taiwan National Development Council (NDC) started a series of policy discussions on how to proceed with the adoption of ODF and what KPIs should be achieved.

Description of target users and groups

Yi-Lan County

In March 2015, Yi-Lan County started a project to train its civil servants in the use of ODF and LibreOffice. As a matter of fact, it was their second attempt to migrate to LibreOffice. In 2008 a first attempt failed, according to Franklin, because central government and peer public agencies were still using Microsoft's proprietary Office format.

In 2014, however, the County found out that its Office 2003 version would not work on Windows 8 when they wanted to upgrade from Windows XP. And the new Office 2013 could not be installed on Windows XP either. That meant they would have to upgrade both Windows and Office, which would have cost NT$ 100 million (EUR 2.82 million) in licence fees. And since this new combo could not run efficiently on the existing computers, the County would have had to buy new machines as well. That, and the adoption of ODF by the UK, persuaded Yi-Lan County to give ODF another try.

So in March 2015 they started migrating the whole County to LibreOffice 4.4. The idea was to initiate the migration first, and in the meantime to start training all public agencies and schools in how to create proper (i.e. interoperable) documents. The government piled on the pressure by emphasising the importance of the transition at every training class, and by publishing every day the names of those who did not adhere to the new standard. The Sunjun company and the LibreOffice community provided help in converting existing spreadsheets into the ODF format and by answering questions.

The whole country

In August 2015, the NDC launched a similar project to migrate the whole country of Taiwan to the ODF format. The project was to last three years and consisted of three stages:

  1. Before the end of the first year, all downloadable files on government websites should be published in ODF or PDF format. Existing files should be converted to these standards before this date.
  2. Before the end of 2016, all files provided by and exchanged between public agencies, or between public agencies and other organisations, should be in ODF or PDF format.
  3. Starting from 2017, all public agencies should create and edit ODF files using software that is freely available for download.

The execution of the programme was entrusted to the Software Liberty Association Taiwan (SLAT), a non-profit organisation promoting open-source software, and the Gjun training company. Yi-Lan County became a leading example for the migration to ODF and LibreOffice for the rest of the country.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The first step of the process — translating existing documents — was "quite messy" and resulted in a lot of complaints, according to Franklin. The civil servants had been asked to convert existing documents from proprietary formats into their open equivalents without any training on how to do this properly.

A total of 13 'policy advocacy' sessions were organised as part of the official ODF transition programme. However, these focused on the UK transition, with British studies, policies, supporting data, and 3-year KPIs. So Franklin invited Eric Sun, who had been very active in the transition to open-source software in Taiwanese schools, to become his partner in doing these sessions in their own way.

Technology solution

Franklin takes an unusual approach to push people to ODF and LibreOffice. "I never directly compare LibreOffice and Microsoft Office. If I would do that, people wouldn't accept it. Instead I attack the stability of Microsoft's OOXML format, which as a supposedly international standard should not change with every version of Office. So I show my audience that people using different versions of this software are actually unable to open the files they receive from each other. Then I do the same using LibreOffice version 4 to open ODF files generated by LibreOffice version 6. When focusing on the differences between OOXML and ODF this way, the advantages of ODF become very obvious."

"Then I show that Microsoft Office is unable to correctly generate ODF files, which has been demonstrated in the ODF Plugfest. So we currently suggest people should not use Microsoft Office to generate ODF files, as these may cause further interoperability problems. But we did show all the issues we have with Microsoft Office to its R&D Manager in Seattle [Microsoft's home base], so we hope they will improve their support for ODF as soon as possible, which would give people one more choice."

Main results, benefits and impacts

According to Franklin, more and more public agencies in Taiwan have accepted the ODF policy. "At this moment, civil servants are still using Microsoft Office and LibreOffice interchangeably. But at least they are now using the ODF format to send attachments instead of only the Microsoft formats. Not all of the documents in attachments, but certainly most of them are now in true ODF format. That means that they were generated by software that implements ODF in the correct (standard) way."

"When an administration starts migrating, the first thing they do is install LibreOffice — or one of its derivatives like the NDC ODF Application Tools. My role is to explain why they should use it and how. And they can ask me for help any time they have problems."

"At this moment there are not many civil servants working directly in LibreOffice, I think, but an increasing number of administrations are purchasing PCs or laptops without Microsoft Office."

"Download LibreOffice"

"The original KPIs focused on the format, not the software," Franklin explains. "In 2018, the NDC asked all central government agencies to set a target for their own efforts. Most of them are now aiming to have more than 60 percent of their document attachments in ODF format by the end of 2019 (not counting the PDF attachments)."

"We haven't heard many complaints from citizens. But the answer we have taught the civil servants to give is that people should download LibreOffice to open these files. A good example of this is the FAQ on the website of the National Palace Museum."

Return on investment description

According to Franklin, at this moment it is impossible to put an overall number on the savings accomplished by the Taiwan government as a whole. "But we do have data from some individual administrations. For example, the Ministry of Finance has been using LibreOffice since 2011 and has saved NT$ 400 million (EUR 11.38 million) in five years."

"The original motivation, of course, was the licence fee cost issue. Although everybody knows that, and we don't deny it, we explain that besides the budget problem there are more important issues to be resolved. That is, the document interoperability problem when using OOXML: files generated by Word 2013 cannot be opened in Word 2007 without installing additional add-ons, which should not be necessary if OOXML were a true standard."

"So currently our standpoint is that the (ODF) standard is the most important thing at hand. And if Microsoft would have been able to produce true ODF files which could be opened by LibreOffice without any problems, people would have been able to use Office. We did provide input on ODF-related problems with Office to Microsoft's R&D managers at the ODF Plugfest 2017, so now it is up to them to change their implementation — or not. But now that an increasing number of administrations are purchasing computers without Microsoft Office, we may need to change our standpoint."

Track record of sharing

"The 'deployment of open-source software for everything' has not yet happened here," says Franklin. "The whole of Taiwan — government, enterprises, schools and individuals — is still locked into proprietary software. Over the last years, however, public agencies have increasingly started to consider the use of open-source software. Open-source software and related services have become an option in public tenders. And I understand that some public agencies are considering replacing their old Windows XP computers with ezgo [1, 2], Taiwan's own Linux distribution based on K/L/Xubuntu."

In imitation of the ODF standardisation and migration programme, SLAT has launched a wider 'Software Liberation Movement' [1, 2]. "It aims to explain to people that they have the freedom to choose whatever software tools they need, according to their real requirements," Franklin explains. "The role of open-source software should be like that of 'public infrastructure' in the physical world, just like buses, trains, accessibility facilities, etc. The value of these public infrastructures lies not in how many people are using them, but in the fact that they exist when people have such requirements."

With this starting point, the goal of Taiwan's Software Liberation Movement is not to insist on open-source software instead of proprietary software. "It's not a single-choice question. If your current software gets the job done, that's good. If not, free software is there for you to use. It's all about choice."

Categorisation

Type of document
Open source case study
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