Bill seeks study of open document formats in New York

Proposal would make state the latest to consider issue, following defeats of similar measures elsewhere

A bill introduced in the New York state legislature on Wednesday would require the state government's IT director to study the issue of using open document formats within agencies, although the proposal doesn't seek to mandate an immediate or long-term move to such formats.

RoAnn M. Destito, a Democratic assemblywoman from the upstate city of Utica, is the chief sponsor of Bill A08961, which now is awaiting approval by the state assembly's Committee on Governmental Operations. That committee is chaired by Destito, who didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment on the legislation.

The bill would make New York the latest state to consider adopting file formats such as the Open Document Format for Office Applications, which is better known as ODF. However, similar measures in five other states -- Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Oregon and California -- were either defeated or shelved after heavy lobbying by Microsoft Corp. and its allies.

Only Minnesota has approved a bill on open document formats thus far this year, and that was a much watered-down version of the original proposal. Like the bill in New York, the measure signed into law in Minnesota simply calls for the state's IT department to study the issue. Initially, it would have required state agencies to begin using an open, XML-based format by July 2008.

To date, Massachusetts is the only state that has a policy requiring the use of open document formats. The policy was adopted in late 2005, via an order issued by the state's then-CIO, and it specified that agencies should begin using a format like ODF instead of Microsoft's proprietary Office formats at the start of this year.

But even in Massachusetts, the impact of the open formats policy has been limited by a combination of political and technical issues. Last year, Massachusetts officials said the state planned to adopt plug-in software that would let its Office users create and save files in ODF, enabling agencies to continue using the Microsoft applications.

The bill in New York calls for amending the state's technology law to direct the head of the Office for Technology  to examine how electronic documents could be created and maintained "in a manner that encourages appropriate government control, access, choice, interoperability and vendor neutrality.

The legislation goes on to say that the study should consider "the policies of other states and nations," as well as issues such as public access to documents, their expected storage life, implementation costs, potential savings and "management guidelines for state archives as they pertain to electronic documents." The bill doesn't specify a deadline for completing the study.

That New York might look into the issue isn't totally unexpected. IBM, the biggest supporter of open document formats legislation, is based in the state.

But before the proposal can be voted on by the full New York assembly, it has to wend its way through the Committee on Governmental Operations. And that may not necessarily be a slam-dunk, despite the fact that Destito chairs the committee.

In California, the sponsor of a bill in favor of open formats -- state assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco -- is chairman of the Committee on Appropriations. But his committee shelved the proposal last week, even though the measure had been weakened to simply call for a study of open document formats instead of a move to them.

Leno this week vowed to push the bill forward again in January, when the second half of California's two-year legislative session begins.

The national governments in Norway, Belgium, Denmark and France are all testing or have approved moves to open file formats such as ODF, which was accepted as a standard  by the Geneva-based ISO standards body last year.

Microsoft is also seeking the ISO stamp of approval  for Office Open XML, the default file format in its Office 2007 software. But the software vendor has fought the open formats bills in every state as part of an effort to protect its Office franchise.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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