State's move to open document formats still not a mass migration

Use of ODF remains minimal on government PCs in Massachusetts

Only a tiny fraction of the PCs at Massachusetts government agencies are able to use the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications, despite an initial deadline of this month for making sure that all state agencies could handle the file format.

Bethann Pepoli, acting state CIO and director of the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD), said via e-mail this week that only about 250 of the 50,000 PCs used at the state's executive agencies have been outfitted with a software plug-in enabling them to create, read and save Microsoft Office files in ODF.

Last August, then-CIO Louis Gutierrez sent a letter to advocates for people with disabilities in which he promised that some early-adopter agencies would begin using Office plug-ins with support for ODF by the start of this year. He added that the state planned by this month to migrate its other agencies "to compliance with the standard" in a phased rollout.

Pepoli, who became acting CIO and ITD director last fall after Gutierrez resigned over a legislative funding impasse, said the state is behind its original ODF rollout schedule. But she noted that potential plug-in suppliers weren't able to deliver working versions of their software by last November. In his letter, Gutierrez wrote that the rollout plan depended on getting usable plug-ins by that month.

According to Pepoli, the ITD did deploy an Office-to-ODF converter for Word text files developed by Sun Microsystems Inc. at some agencies in January. Sun "was the first to be production-ready" with a plug-in, Pepoli said. She added that after IT staffers "worked through the issues" with Sun, the ITD signed a license agreement for the free plug-in early last month.

The ITD is working to install the plug-in at more agencies, but Pepoli said it now has no definite schedule for completing the rollout, apart from "wanting to get it done as soon as possible."

One thing might help: The ITD has created and tested a small .msi file for installing the Sun plug-in on Windows systems, Pepoli said. That enables IT workers to transmit the file to PCs overnight and set it to automatically install itself when the computers are turned on.

Pepoli said that the Sun plug-in is able to convert files back and forth between the Office and ODF formats with little in the way of problems. "Nothing ever provides 100% fidelity, but we have not encountered any major issues," she wrote, adding that Sun is also developing converters for Excel and PowerPoint files.

The state's open formats policy was crafted by ITD officials in late 2005 outside of the legislative process. But Gutierrez announced the plug-in strategy last year so that agencies could continue to use Office. One of the road blocks preventing the state from immediately swapping out Office for ODF-based desktop applications such as Sun's StarOffice or the open-source suite was a lack of support in the latter products for assistive technologies used by people who are blind or deaf.

Accessibility advocates complained that Office works better with screen readers and other assistive tools than the ODF-based applications do. And Microsoft itself lobbied heavily against the original open formats policy after it was announced by the ITD.

Asked this week how well the Sun plug-in is working with assistive software, Pepoli said that the Massachusetts Office on Disability was one of the early adopters of the Office-to-ODF converter. "We have done extensive accessibility testing within ITD using our accessibility lab, and we continue to test the latest versions," she wrote.

The slower-than-planned adoption of ODF in Massachusetts appears to have influenced state legislators in Texas who recently quashed a bill calling for the use of open document formats -- one of five such proposals that have been defeated or shelved in the U.S. this year following strong opposition from Microsoft and its allies in the IT industry.

At a hearing held on the Texas bill by the Committee on Government Reform in that state's House of Representatives, Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Washington-based Initiative for Software Choice, testified that only a handful of government PCs in Massachusetts had been converted to ODF. Wyne's group is the lobbying arm of the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, which has worked closely with Microsoft to fight pro-ODF legislation.

Jonathan Mathers, the government reform committee's chief clerk, said that IBM's lobbyists in Texas declined to dispute Wyne's claims -- despite having previously given "gleaming" reports on the progress of the ODF rollout in Massachusetts. "That's when I really started to question the whole bill," said Mathers, who is in charge of researching legislation for the committee. Members of the panel eventually voted to scrap the open formats proposal.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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