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Q&A: Calif. CIO Steers Clear of Ideology on File Formats

Kelso says state is looking at document choices ‘as a straight business decision’

By Carol Sliwa
March 19, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In late February, a California state assembly member proposed a bill that would mandate the use of open, XML-based document file formats by state agencies. That made California the third state in which such legislation has been introduced so far this year. In an interview at Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Palm Desert, Calif., this month, J. Clark Kelso, California's CIO, said state officials are trying to view the issue of using open file formats “as a straight business decision,” not an ideological battle. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Are open document formats the most critical issue for you, or is it more important for the state to get to open-source software?

Clark Kelso
Clark Kelso
We don’t view this in California as some sort of ideological struggle between big, competing visions of the future. We’re trying to view it as a straight business decision. What are the costs associated with one approach over another? Does it serve all of our business needs? If it doesn’t serve a business need, how do we satisfy that business need? We’re trying to view this just as a plain-vanilla, nonpartisan, nonideological issue.

I feel like I have to say that, because in the open-source community, there’s a little bit of the ideological approach. It’s part of their community-building experience. Open documents is a little bit different from that, particularly when you bring in concerns that the government has about preserving, on a 100-year basis, archival information. We have to take a serious look at what is in the state’s best interests.

Belgium’s national government plans to adopt the OpenDocument format, but one IT executive there told me it couldn’t do so without ODF plug-ins for Microsoft Office. Do you feel the same way? Our installed base of Office right now is so huge, we could not just overnight or within the course of one year make that sort of a transition. If we’re going to move in a particular direction, we have to be thinking about how we transition to that new state [in] three, four or five years. It may be that in the interim, we have to adopt something that is transitional. But I frankly see this as still a very fluid issue in the marketplace. I don’t know that I need to make a decision today.

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