European Commission still in denial on vendor lock-in

If you’re suspecting that the European Commission isn’t entirely serious about using and supporting the Open Document Format, you might be on to something. Responding to questions from the European Parliament about whether the EC’s Microsoft addiction might have lead it into being locked into the Redmond giant’s products, the Commission basically says “move on, nothing to see here.”

Read on for the gory details.

In November 2013, MEP Amelia Andersdotter (Greens/EFA) pointed out that the Commission had said, in 2011, that “preferred document exchange among the [European] Institutions is OOXML”. Since the version of OOXML that’s actually used by Microsoft’s programs is the so-called “Transitional” variety that essentially depends on Microsoft, it is hard for anyone else to implement this format perfectly. This puts Free Software competitors such as LibreOffice at a great disadvantage. It also makes the European institutions ever more dependent on Microsoft, as they pile up millions and millions of documents in a format that depends on this single proprietary vendor.

MEP Andersdotter asked what the Commission is doing to counteract this lock-in effect. She also wanted to know what the EC is doing to make sure that the increasing number of public bodies in Europe that use Free Software could exchange documents with the Commission without running into difficulties.

These questions would have been an opportunity for the Commission to explain its unequivocal support for fair competition and Open Standards, along with a commitment to fighting vendor lock-in. Unsurprisingly, the Commission ended up doing the opposite and defending the rather unsatisfactory status quo.

Let’s run through a number of problems with the Commission’s reply.

First, how can the Commission claim that internal use of OOXML is “the  most cost-effective solution”? The Commission hasn’t run an open, competitive call for office automation software in more than 20 years. If Šefčovič has a factual basis for this claim, we would love to see it.

Second,  Šefčovič doesn’t actually answer the question that MEP Andersdotter asked. The MEP asked how the Commission’s stated aim of countering vendor lock-in fits with its stated practice of preferring OOXML, a format which is next to impossible to implement fully for anyone but Microsoft.

In reply, Šefčovič argues that “[t]here is therefore no lock-in effect whatsoever”. This directly contradicts the statement the  Commission itself made in its reply to questions by MEP Bart Staes on May 27, 2011.

“A change of supplier would oblige the contracting authority to acquire equipment having different technical characteristics which would result in incompatibility or disproportionate technical difficulties in operation and maintenance.”

(Note: this reasoning is contained in Annex 1 to the EC’s reply. For some reason, the Annex isn’t published along with the reply.)

This sort of “incompatibility” and “disproportionate technical difficulties” of moving to a rival supplier or platform is the very definition of vendor lock-in.

How could the EC do better?

The Commission’s contracts for Microsoft licenses and services are expiring this year. To replace them, at the very least we expect the EC to run open, competitive calls for tender based on functional specifications rather than brand names — something it has refused to do for two decades.

But that won’t be enough. In the interest of Europe’s citizens and software developers, we expect the European Commission to follow the example of a number of Member States — Italy the latest among them –, open itself up to competition, and make Free Software the default choice for its own  IT systems.