In about-face, Mass. now likely to OK Microsoft's OOXML

Latest state IT proposal lists Office format as acceptable open standard

Massachusetts today released draft specifications that would allow state workers to continue using Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format.

The latest proposal comes about two years after state IT officials kicked off a raging political battle by unveiling  specifications that would have required state workers to use applications that support only "open" technologies like the OpenDocument format (ODF).

"Open XML does meet our established criteria for an open standard," said Bethann Pepoli, the state's acting CIO, in an e-mail to Computerworld. "There is industry support for Open XML and we believe that by adopting the standard we will be able to accelerate the pace of migration to XML document formats."

A spokesman for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick referred questions on the move to support OOXML to Pepoli.

According to pages 18-22 of the proposed Massachusetts Enterprise Technical Reference Model 4.0, OOXML, along with ODF, plain text and HTML formats, meets the IT division's criteria for an open document format.

Other formats that are not considered open but could be used by Massachusetts state employees include Adobe Corp.'s Portable Document Format and Rich Text Format.

"We support the Commonwealth's proposal to add Ecma [International's] Office Open XML File Formats to the list of approved standards, as this would give users the ability to choose the open file format standard that best serves their needs," said Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager for interoperability and standards, in an e-mail statement.

Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and open standards, noted that the decision to include the Office formats in the framework is not final, because public comments "on this important issue" can be sent to state officials until July 20.

"In its draft policy, the Commonwealth has it exactly right, as it describes OOXML as being an Ecma-dictated format, and developed solely to 'ensure the highest levels of fidelity with legacy documents created in proprietary Microsoft Office binary document formats,' " said Sutor in an e-mail. "We completely agree:  OOXML looks backward, while ODF is an international ISO standard, and is forward looking. The public understands this too, as nearly 15,000 people opposing OOXML have signed an online petition circulated by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure."

Under former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn, the state in the fall of 2005 announced plans to ban the use of proprietary document formats by government workers. The state's IT officials argued that such formats created roadblocks to public access and could prevent future access to archived documents.

At the time, Microsoft's Office Open XML format was clearly listed as a forbidden proprietary format, effectively preventing Massachusetts government agencies from upgrading to Microsoft's new Office 2007 software and encouraging them to move to free or low-cost ODF-based alternatives, such as

Observers note that the free OpenOffice software, as well as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s open StarOffice software, is now used by tens of millions of people worldwide, while more than 400 million people use Microsoft Office.

Microsoft has tried to appease critics by opening up OOXML. It has created and/or supported translators that can convert OOXML files to other formats, released related technical information and provided the format without charge to third-party programmers.

OOXML was ratified  by the Ecma International standards group as an open standard late last year. It is currently waiting approval by the larger, more prestigious ISO international standards body, which is expected to decide whether to accept the format by August.

Microsoft has played hardball by lobbying hard in  Massachusetts and other states, and to the federal government. On the other side, ODF supporter IBM has also lobbied governments.

Andy Updegrove, a lawyer and open formats advocate, said in his blog today that the decision to support OOXML is not surprising, considering the "intense pressure behind the scenes" exerted by Microsoft. He did note that based on "purely technical requirements," OOXML "arguably" meets the state's definition of an open standard.

Outside of the U.S., a number of governments have approved laws favoring open document formats. But among U.S. state governments, pro-open-format laws have failed to pass in nearly all of the states where they have been up for approval.

Quinn cited the brouhaha as a reason for his resignation from the state CIO post in early 2006. His successor, Louis Gutierrez, resigned after less than a year on the job after he faced similar pressures.

Massachusetts had also been slowly backing down from its once-uncompromising stance. Last year, after opposition led by advocates for disabled users complained about ODF's poor support for add-on software that helped blind users read documents, for example, IT officials decided to continue using Microsoft Office software with plug-ins to convert file formats.

The rollout of those plug-ins on governmental PCs, meant at one point to be completed by the end of June, is also behind schedule.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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