ODF and Singapore

I am posting these up for the purpose of archival as well as a reference point to the various suggestions to the IDA to adopt the ODF as a Singapore standard. The ST runs a stupid money making scam that one will need to pay money to read their archives so in the interest of public policy and open debate, I am posting the letters that pertained to the ODF discussion. I am more keen to have the ludicrous reply from the IDA for all to see and this is the kind of mental rot that we see in parts of that organization. I hope that the powers that be will be put this sorry state of affairs to rest. Singapore is known for IT leadership not kowtowing to the “Microsoft investments” in Singapore.


April 1, 2006
Govt should move to OpenDocument Format

IMAGINE you live on a sleepy street in a coastal town. A hurricane hits the shore, and the government agency responsible for telling you how and where to get relief, for provisioning aid and emergency services, sends out a curious message: if you cannot afford a copy of Microsoft Windows, we are sorry, we cannot help you. That was what happened in New Orleans when it was hit by Katrina a few months ago.

Recently, I had a similar experience. I went to the HDB website to find out about the new window legislation. There was a video on the website pertaining to the legislation that requires Microsoft Windows Media Player to play. I was running my Linux PC then, so I could not play the video. Being curious, I checked out the file formats on all the Singapore government websites. It turned out that the file formats hosted on them are all stored in Microsoft’s formats. What it meant was that I could not use the government services without first buying a Microsoft product.

I urge the Singapore Government to consider migrating the state’s documents to the OpenDocument Format, which is the only standard for editable office documents that has been vetted by an independent, recognised standards body, has been implemented by multiple vendors, and can be implemented by anyone without restriction. This format was publicly developed by a variety of organisations and is publicly accessible. The OpenDocument Format is intended to provide an open alternative to proprietary document formats, including the popular but undocumented DOC, XLS and PPT formats used by Microsoft Office.

Organisations and individuals that store their data in an open format such as OpenDocument avoid being locked in to a single software vendor, leaving them free to switch software if their current vendor goes out of business, raises its prices, changes its software, or changes its licensing terms to something less favourable.

The Massachusetts government is making it mandatory to store all the state’s files in the OpenDocument Format by next year. The European Union will require OpenDocument as the official office-suite standard once the International Organisation for Standardisation ratifies it.

Koh Choon Lin


April 19 2006

Suggested document format not practical

I REFER to Mr Koh Choon Lin’s letter, ‘Govt should move to OpenDocument Format’ (ST, April 1).

The Microsoft Office suite is used widely by PC users. Therefore, it is not practical for the Government to adopt OpenDocument as the only standard.

There is also third-party software, such as Open Office, which is available for both Microsoft and Linux platforms, and can be downloaded freely from the Internet to read the Microsoft document formats.

To facilitate viewing of documents on government websites, government agencies have been advised to publish documents electronically in PDF format. The PDF format requires only the use of free reader software.

However, we note that there are still documents that were published only in the Microsoft format, and we will work closely with government agencies to address this issue.

The Infocomm Development Authority thanks Mr Koh for his feedback.

Jennifer Toh (Ms)
Corporate & Marketing Communication
Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore


April 22 2006

Why is OpenDocument Format ‘not practical’?

I REFER to the reply from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), on the use of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for all government documents (‘Suggested document format not practical’; ST, April 19).

It is surprising that IDA said that ‘the Microsoft Office suite is used widely by PC users. Therefore, it is not practical for the Government to adopt OpenDocument as the only standard’. How many of these PC users are using ‘unofficially obtained’ Microsoft Office suite? Why is it ‘not practical’? Is the standard lacking something?

As this is an open standard, the National IT Standards Committee could help input additional requirements so as to make it useful for the whole world.

I expect technical leadership to come from IDA through actively encouraging the use of openly published and globally standardised file formats, not generalisations.

The ODF has already been adopted as the standard for all government documents by the US state of Massachusetts and many others around the world. Singapore can be a standards setter and leader in this area as well.

We are observing 25 years of IT leadership and are rolling out the IN2015 vision. Is this vision going to be vendor-centric? Or will it be bold and forward-looking, with no more taxpayers’ money spent on proprietary standards?

Harish Pillay
Linux Users’ Group (Singapore)


OpenDocument format benefits Singaporeans. Use it

With reference to the letter “Govt should move to OpenDocument Format” by Koh Choon Jin (ST Forum, April 1), I applaud his insightful analysis.

Adopting OpenDocument Formats (ODF) allows you to retain control on your choice of office productivity suite. There are many office productivity suites that support OpenDocument formats, such as OpenOffice, StarOffice, KOffice and many others.

On the other hand, you are restricted to using Microsoft Office to view the proprietary Office documents.

Affordability of Microsoft Office for ordinary Singaporeans is another worthwhile reason for the government to support ODF. A Standard edition of Microsoft Office retails around $400 and a professional edition retails around $600. The hefty prices put Microsoft Office beyond the reach of the lower income families.

In addition, it is also ambiguous whether the licence allows a single purchased copy of Microsoft Office to be used by a whole family of users. Compare this with OpenOffice, which is free and you can see the immediate benefits.

As Singapore is pushing for the protection of intellectual property, it is an irony that a majority of the population is using pirated copies of Microsoft Office. When you look at the HDB heartlands, it is most likely a high proportion of residents use pirated copies of Microsoft Office than licensed copies.

The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) have been working hard to educate the population to respect intellectual property, but I have observed the message seems to be “pay or be damned”.

No other alternative, such as adopting OpenOffice, was ever communicated to the population. We need to be more creative and original while we strive to be “hip” (honouring intellectual property). Also, we must not convey a wrong message to Singaporeans that you have to be rich to be “hip”.

Promoting the adoption of ODF allows Singaporeans to choose from commercial alternatives such as StarOffice and free software such as OpenOffice.

We can choose our office productivity suite based on affordability and suitability of each solution. No longer are we tied to a single vendor. With fair competition based on open standards, consumers will be the ones who benefit the most. We can already see the benefits for consumers in the local telecoms industry when it was liberalised.

In addition, proprietary document formats controlled by single vendor has higher risk of obsolescence when the vendor decides not to support them.

On the other hand, no single vendor controls the ODF. It is an industry standard and a soon-to-be international standard. Competitive pressures will ensure that there are vendors supporting ODF.

Today, we can see governments around the world adopting ODF. Other than the Massachusetts example given by Mr Koh, we can see similar adoption by Australian National Archives, which is storing the entire history of Australia in ODF, UK’s Bristol City Council, and Germany’s Munich City.

Last but not least, the government has to be impartial and not promote a particular vendor’s products. Instead, it should be setting common rules, ie. open standards, on which all vendors should compete.

This is what I, a Singaporean, expect from our government. I believe many Singaporeans will share this expectation too.

Wong Onn Chee


April 28, 2006
Open-source software not all it’s made out to be

I REFER to the comments by the president of the Linux Users’ Group (Singapore), Mr Harish Pillay (‘Why is OpenDocument Format ‘not practical’?’; ST, April 22).

The Linux Users’ Group did not portray the scenario in its entirety. The push for open-source software (OSS) has always revolved around cost and security. However, moving to OSS does not guarantee reduction in cost nor increased security.

Total cost of ownership involves not only the initial cost but also continued support and maintenance.

Migrating a whole enterprise over entails high initial cost. Support for open-source software also does not come cheap. Also, OSS has its fair share of vulnerabilities, such as in the popular Firefox browser which was touted as a more secure solution.

In addition, the US state of Massachusetts’ decision last year to go with OpenDocument Format may not go through after recent protests by top officials.

Alan Yap Chee Wee


May 1, 2006

Format impractical? Largest ministry uses it

I REFER to the reply by Ms Jennifer Toh of the Infocomm Development Authority (‘Suggested document format not practical’; ST, April 19).

I applaud the move by IDA to encourage all government agencies to use PDF files in communications with the public. This will allow us to make use of free reader software to access important government notices.

However, I do not see the impracticality of using OpenDocument format within the Government. Since the policy is to use PDF to communicate with the public, it is logical to assume that Microsoft Office formats are used primarily in intra-government communications. Hence, the popularity of Microsoft Office formats outside the Government is not an important factor. Within the Government, IDA has the authority to mandate a change to OpenDocument formats.

In addition, to generate PDF from Microsoft Office, one needs additional third-party products such as Adobe Distiller.

All these add to the overall cost of the office productivity package. For the record, OpenOffice can generate PDF files – for free.

In fact, the largest ministry, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), has shown the wisdom of adopting OpenDocument formats as the de facto document format. Since 2004, Mindef has adopted OpenOffice and the OpenDocument format. It plans to deploy OpenOffice to 20,000 desktops by the first half of this year.

Mindef gave the following reasons for its decision to select OpenOffice:

1. It avoided paying more than $10 million by not upgrading more than 20,000 desktops to Office 2003. When the next release of Office is launched, it has the option of staying on OpenOffice or adopting this new release. In other words, in two to three years’ time, it can again avoid paying tens of millions of dollars by not migrating to the latest version of Microsoft Office. This decision cycle will be repeated every three to four years.

2. It retains the choice of using proprietary software or OSS as OpenOffice can coexist with existing, older versions of Microsoft Office.

3. It will not be forced to upgrade by vendor-introduced obsolescence when a proprietary software vendor introduces a new version of its software.

4. It has the flexibility to read and modify codes, which is not possible with proprietary software.

With proprietary software, even if you are a big customer and the changes you want are reasonable, and reflect the needs of most users, the most the vendor can promise is that the feature will be available with the next release.

With the money saved by not buying new Microsoft Office licences, Mindef can channel valuable resources to its core competency areas.

I believe the reasons given by Mindef apply to other government agencies.

Is the Government ‘locked in’ by vendors? Based on the arguments by Ms Toh against the adoption of OpenDocument formats, IDA should not even consider replacing existing enterprise applications with alternatives.

Wong Onn Chee
Singapore Marketing Contact


May 1, 2006

There’s no such thing as ‘bug-less’ secure software and there are different vulnerabilities

I refer to the comments by Mr Alan Yap Chee Wee in his letter ‘Open-source software not all it’s made out to be’ (ST, April 28).

Mr Yap made a sweeping statement without providing any details to support his assumptions. While I agree that moving toward OSS does not guarantee reduction in cost in the short term, it does show some reduction in the long term.

It is almost impossible for an enterprise to be using the same software for as long as it is around. At one time or another, it will have to upgrade and hence it effectively migrates the software to a newer version.

To purchase a full new version of software when it is not entirely compatible with the newer version is perhaps equal to overhauling the whole system.

This is the time where the enterprise can consider migrating to Open Source Software where future upgrades will be less of a hassle and a lot cheaper. Continued support and maintenance are virtually the same in proprietary software. I suggest Mr Yap looks into the licensing conditions by the world’s biggest software manufacturer before making remarks such as it is cheaper to keep proprietary software.

On the clause which says OSS is a more secure solution, let me say there is no such thing as a ‘bugless’, secure software other than the international ‘Hello World’ software.

Whenever a software is written, it is likely to have some vulnerabilities. It is the number of problems the software has and the time taken to solve them that counts.

To date, based on secunia.com, Firefox has 30 vulnerabilities, in which four have not been patched yet. IE 6, however, has 101 vulnerabilities, in which 21, which range from low to high critically, have not been patched.

This proves that Firefox is a more secure solution. No one claims that OSS is the ticket to an invulnerable software, but it is definitely a ticket to a less vulnerable software since other programmers and software engineers can read the quote and protect it.

I would like Mr Yap to point to me his reference where ‘OpenDocument Format may not go through after recent protests by top officials’.

Even though I know Senator Pacheco had some reservations and he had in fact set up a hearing with Mr Peter Quinn on the issue last October, there is no concrete evidence to point to any information where Massachusetts may scrap the decision to go with OpenDocument Format.

Mr Yap may be interested to know the following facts:

1) James Gallt, associate director for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said that a number of other state agencies are also exploring the use of OpenDocument.

2) British Education Communication Technology Agency, UK agency in charge of defining information technology (IT) policy, including standards, for all schools in the United Kingdom had published a comprehensive document describing the policy for infrastructure in schools in 2005.

In this document, it makes known that the Office Productivity Standards used must be able to ‘Saved to (and so viewed by others) using a commonly agreed format that ensures an institution is not locked into using specific software’.

It has also cited OpenDocument format together with RTF, CSV, HTML as examples.

3) On 27 March 2006, a bill, chapter 16E, was introduced in the Minnesota state legislature to require all state agencies to use open data formats. In which case OpenDocument Format meets all the requirements.

Kuah Yeow Teng


May 1, 2006
OpenDocument format is practical and economical

I refer to the reply from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) on the use of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for all government documents (Suggested document format not practical; ST, April 19), comments by the president of the Linux Users’ Group (Singapore), Mr Harish Pillay (Why is OpenDocument Format ‘not practical?’; ST, April 22) and comments by Alan Yap Chee Wee (Open Source software not all it’s made out to be’; ST, April 28).

Mr Yap is correct that total cost of ownership (TCO) involves not only the initial cost but also continued support and maintenance.

However, he fails to mention that studies have shown the TCO of using OpenDocument format (OASIS ODF) is still significantly lower than using Microsoft’s proprietary software even when excluding the consideration of vendor lock-in.

Mr Harish should be able to tell us that Linux became widely accepted not because it is cheap or free but because on functionality and features, it is simply too expensive to continue using proprietary software.

Mr Yap also fails to highlight the fact that not only has the European IDA standardised on ODF as the de facto document format for exchange (europa.eu.int), several US government and educational institutions, as well as our Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), had also done so after realising the significant economic benefits.

Unless Singapore plans to be isolated, shouldn’t the adoption of a world standard be more practical? I fail to see how IDA alone finds it otherwise.

In 2004, the state of Minnesota sued Microsoft for overcharging its residents Microsoft’s productivity software using monopoly and illegal business tactics. (news.minnesota.publicradio.org)

Microsoft subsequently settled with the state for US$175 million in compensation. This is just one of the many class action lawsuits against Microsoft.

Finally, there are two office productivity software programs that support OpenDocument (OASIS) format today; OpenSource OpenOffice and its commercial twin, StarOffice. Both offer a lower TCO than Microsoft (searchopensource.techtarget.com).

Perhaps the IDA can shed some light on the TCO study it has conducted (if any) to convince the citizen that our money is well spent.

Daniel Lee Wee Chong


May 1, 2006
Open Formats versus Open Sources software: Is the comparison valid?

I refer to the letter ‘Open-source software not all it’s made out to be’ by Mr Alan Yap Chen Wee (ST, April 28).

Mr Yap seems to have mistaken the issue of Open Formats with Open Source Software. I’m not sure if comparing them is valid as the two are quite different in essence. Very superficially, formats could be likened to the alphabet. A person could write a document using the English alphabet.

But imagine if the English alphabet got obliterated. That same document which has important information may not be readable anymore. In essence, this can be used as an analogy to describe formats.

Software, whether proprietary or Open Source, are just computing tools. In the case of programs like word processors or spreadsheets, the file types which they can open depend on which type of formats have been incorporated into the program. Thus, a software can incorporate proprietary or Open Formats.

Comparing file formats to software may not have been entirely appropriate.

With regard to the issue of implementing Open Source Software at the enterprise level, the points put forth are, I believe, highly debatable.

I would comment on the point made about the popularity of the Firefox browser. Security is not the only reason for the popularity of the browser. There are other features such as skins and extensions.

It is indeed true that some regard Firefox as a more secure solution. This was probably a valid statement given the known vulnerabilities at that time. During this period, malicious individuals were more likely to target popular web browsers.

However, no software is invulnerable. The security of a piece of software would very much depend on the way the program code is written and the time taken to patch vulnerabilities.

Some Open Source developers are indeed very efficient in writing software patches. As Firefox becomes more popular, it will become increasingly targetted by malicious individuals. During this period I think end-users will get a better idea if Open Source web browsers are indeed more secure solutions.

Goh Lu Feng


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