Ministers attending Monday's meeting in Granada, Spain, vowed to develop more interoperable public services for greater transparency and user-driven innovation, according to a statement.
The ministers' declaration, which is to be incorporated into the EU's long-term economic strategy for 2020, says member states will develop "more effective and efficient interoperable public services" and promote "cost effectiveness in eGovernment through the systematic promotion of open standards and interoperable systems".
The EU's Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who was present at Monday's meeting and has a history of slapping multimillion-euro fines on IT giants like IBM and Microsoft for anticompetitive behaviour, backed the declaration.
In a statement yesterday, she said: "Europe does not yet reap the maximum benefit from interoperability. Weaknesses in standard-setting, public procurement and coordination prevent digital services and devices used by Europeans from working together as well as they should."
Kroes is due to unveil plans for an EU Digital Agenda later this month, which are expected to emphasise interoperability and the notion of open standards (EurActiv 14/04/10).
Threat to Microsoft Office
Following Monday's meeting, governments across Europe are expected to follow Denmark and Norway's lead by choosing open software standards for eGovernment services, like the freely-available Open Document Format (ODF).
Should their promise materialise, it could pose a threat to the 95% market share held by Microsoft applications, legal sources told EurActiv.
The IT giant led initiatives to standardise online services for citizens and public administrations with the launch of its Citizen Service Platform in 2008 (EurActiv 24/01/08).
But EU governments predominantly use a wider variety of document formats, including Microsoft Office but also Adobe PDF and ODF.
In April 2008, after months of controversial negotiations, Microsoft succeeded in counteracting ODF's relevance in the marketplace by getting its own format adopted as a second international standard (EurActiv 03/04/08).
OOXML – the Open Office XML code developed by Microsoft – was pushed by the company as an international standard to perpetuate the firm's stranglehold of the market, said Thomas Vinje, a lawyer and interoperability expert at Clifford Chance.
Vinje is a spokesperson for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), which represents some of Microsoft's biggest competitors: Adobe Systems, Corel, IBM, Nokia, Opera, Oracle, RealNetworks, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems.
Vinje argues that Microsoft has still not held its end of the bargain to ensure that its OOXML-based office suite is fully interoperable with other document formats built using the same code.
Microsoft's OOXML documents will continue to be incompatible with other formats using the International Organisation for Standardisation's (ISO) OOXML code, as the two are intentionally slightly different, argues Vinje.
This means that any Microsoft Office document downloaded from an eGovernment portal may not work on another software built on the ISO's OOXML code, limiting their potential to gain a foothold on the market, the lawyer explained.
Vinje predicts that this complaint will continue to crop up. "This has been on the EU's radar for a while and it will continue to be," he said.
Microsoft denies any wrongdoing and admits that there is some "internal inconsistency or ambiguity" in the standard, which may result in errors. The firm adds that it has been working closely with the standards community to resolve these problems.
However, another lawyer alleges that Microsoft was able to backtrack on concessions made to the ISO to provide other players with the exact OOXML specifications, because a committee at the group was manned by advocates of the firm's cause.
By "stuffing committees" at the ISO, Microsoft consultants managed to circumvent a compromise at the standard-making institution, according to Maurits Dolmans, a lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.
Norway has already implemented ODF as its formal eGovernment standard, with Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands and Sweden not far behind, Vinje said.