December 14, 2005 2:07 PM PST

Massachusetts says it's open to multiple formats

BOSTON--Massachusetts legislators assembled some of the IT industry's most powerful companies Wednesday to discuss the state's electronic document standards, a closely watched decision with significance that has stretched far beyond state boundaries.

No policy decisions were made at the public forum, but two important state officials indicated that Massachusetts expects to eventually support multiple document standards for its productivity applications and electronic records.

A state IT policy that accommodates multiple document standards would allow Microsoft and companies that use the OpenDocument standard to compete in the state's procurement process. At present, Microsoft is excluded from competing for desktop application contracts in executive branch state agencies because it does not support OpenDocument.

The forum, held at the Massachusetts State House, was called by state senators to air the issues surrounding a controversial--and politicized--decision by the IT Division of the Secretary of Administration and Finance to mandate use of OpenDocument-based products by Jan. 1, 2007. OpenDocument is a set of standards for common desktop applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.

The state's endorsement of OpenDocument, a standard created by several vendors, has been hailed as a way to ensure access to electronic documents for many years, particularly for government customers.

"This is a hugely important topic and clearly one that is attracting international attention," said John Palfrey, professor of law and executive director at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Massachusetts is the canary in a coal mine. If the commonwealth gets it right, others will follow. It will be good for economy of the commonwealth but also good for democracy," he said at Wednesday's forum.

Microsoft does not intend to support OpenDocument in its next version of Office, which is due by the end of next year. However, the dominant productivity-application provider has submitted the XML-based document formats for Office to standards body Ecma International, which intends to create a standard in about a year.

At the forum, Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker division, said that once Microsoft's Office Open XML specifications are ratified as standards, customers such as Massachusetts will have more choice.

"The (Office) Open XML formats should be able to be considered side-by-side with the OASIS-delivered OpenDocument formats. They really did start from different places so there is a technology choice that you make to use one or the other or both," Yates said. "Our point is that using both is a really wise and easy choice."

Two other forum panelists--Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source and Bob Sproull, a Sun Microsystems fellow and vice president of Sun Labs in Massachusetts--disputed the contention that having several standards for document formats is desirable.

"The choice occurs at the applications that you use--it's really critical. You don't really want lots of standards underneath. The goal is to have one really good one and then we want a choice of different implementations that...work on different platforms," Sutor said.

Sutor told CNET News.com that IBM voted against the creation of the Ecma Office Open XML committee because, in part, it does not appear to be as inclusive as the OpenDocument process, which is happening at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

"We have to be careful just equating. Here (at OASIS) we have something developed by multiple community members over a period of time, versus 'Take what I've given you and don't change it,'" Sutor said.

The charter of the Open Office XML Ecma committee stated that the resulting specification has to be "backward compatible" with existing Microsoft Office formats.

Multiple "open standards"

Peter Quinn, chief information officer of the state's IT division, applauded Microsoft's effort to have its Office document formats standardized. He added that Massachusetts would be willing to have more than one document format standard if Microsoft goes through with its commitment to standardization and its licensing terms meet the state's needs.

"We're not going to change the rules that we got. It's a blueprint that's in place," Quinn told CNET News.com.

He added that the IT division will review its Enterprise Technical Reference Model next year and the effective date of the policy could move from early 2007 to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Separately, Quinn decried the politicization of the IT division's technology policy, saying it could have a "chilling effect" on other government officials who take unconventional stands.

"IT should be apolitical," he said. Quinn was cleared this week of a review of his travel expenses.

Meanwhile, the state's supervisor of public records Alan Cote--who has sharply criticized the IT division's choice of OpenDocument--said the state has been working on a plan to create a single electronic archive. Rather than choose a single document standard, he expects the system will work with multiple standardized formats.

"We want one policy for the commonwealth. That one policy will be an open policy; there's no doubt about it," Cote told CNET News.com. "My definition of open is that I don't have to buy the new version to get to old records."

He said that the state's records management and archive agency, which is under the jurisdiction of Secretary of State William Galvin, is still considering the appropriate options.

5 comments

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Quote of 2005
That's definitely it :
"My definition of open is that I don't have to buy the new version to
get to old records."

Yep, that shows real insight and understanding of the issues.
Posted by JulesLt (110 comments )
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MS Office? what's that?
Why bother using it if you can do *nearly*... or everything you need using OpenOffice? Do you like to pay money for a black box?

My company has had no trouble converting to OpenOffice - even telling users to install openoffice to read *standard* document types that M$Office cant read. And for the truly, truly hardware MS loyalists, OpenOffice just exports to that closed format.
Posted by kensystem (8 comments )
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In 2006, Open Office.Org has been affected only by 5 vulnerabilities for the total of the three versions still available in the market, while its largest competitor ? a proprietary application ? has been affected by 67 vulnerabilities. This makes this software a leader of a very uncomfortable category.
---------------------
Mikewilliams

<a href="http://www.treatmentcenters.org/massachusetts " REL="DOFOLLOW"> Massachusetts Treatment Centers</a>
Posted by mikewilliam (1 comment )
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Cote is Clueless
Does Cote have any idea what he just said?
Posted by dcparris (8 comments )
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If its proprietary, it is NOT an "open standard"...
If there are multiple standards, then it isnt "a standard", at all. And, if it is not an "Open Standard", then government documents should not use it.

Its that simple.

In fact, this whole debacle really is a simple issue...

Government documents, and the citizens that MUST access them, must not be held hostage by proprietary-standards that allow ANY company to, in any way, control, manipulate, forcibly extract revenue from, or endanger future access to such publicly-owned information.

There is no legitimate technical reason why Microsoft is refusing to support an "Open Document Standard". In fact, it is Microsoft who was intentionally cutting themselves out of a potential-market. Which leads to the REAL question: Why is Microsoft so bound and determined to refuse to compete fairly?

Nor, is there any practical-reason why Massachusetts should CAVE-IN, on this simple-point.

This looks like just another case of an American governmental-bureaucracys RESOLVE crumbling in the face of a powerful-corporations monetary-might, pure and simple.

Frankly, Microsofts pathetic sham of submitting for an "Ecma" standard, changes nothing about the real situation, or the fact that we are actually, once again, being forced to deal with one companys, illegally created and maintained MONOPOLY-POWER, and the governmental-duplicity which fosters it.

Too bad it will be the citizens that will once again be SCREWED by such corporate self-interest, and Government CORRUPTION.
Posted by Had_to_be_said (384 comments )
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