Amidst public criticism, Massachusetts finalizes open documents format compromise

Revised plan embraces both ODF and Office Open XML

The Massachusetts IT Division (ITD) officially confirmed Wednesday that it is moving forward with a revised state technology master plan that embraces both OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft Corp.'s Office Open XML as viable ways to store public documents.

The ITD also released public comments received during a three-week comment period last month after it said it would add Microsoft's Open XML to its list of acceptable document formats.

Those letters take up 852 pages in a 16MB PDF document (PDF format).

Explaining the reversal

In a letter posted at the ITD's Web site and co-signed by Henry Dormitzer, undersecretary of administration and finance and Bethann Pepoli, acting Massachusetts CIO, the commonwealth acknowledged that most of the 460 comments it received about its Enterprise Technical Reference Model v4.0 dealt with that decision.

"We believe that these concerns, as with those regarding ODF, are appropriately handled through the standards setting process, and we expect both standards to evolve and improve," said the letter. "Moreover, we believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards."

Wednesday's confirmation caps a near-total reversal of the controversial plan first announced in September 2005 when then-CIO Peter Quinn announced his intention to ban the use of Microsoft Office by state employees in favor of productivity software supporting open document formats that he said were more suitable for long-term document archives and more accessible to the general public.

As early as a year ago, the state was already being forced to back down by advocates for people with disabilities, who argued that ODF did not support assistive technologies, such as screen readers, as well as Microsoft Office formats. Opponents of big government also argued that a forced move off Office would be costly and risky.

In a statement, Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, said Wednesday's announcement allows government employees "the freedom to choose whichever format best serves their needs. The commonwealth's decision also reflects the fact that formats will evolve over time and that approved standards lists should also evolve."

Winners, losers, bloggers, and the Big Dig

Andy Updegrove, a lawyer and open-standards advocate, wrote in his Standards Blog that the outcome is a "regrettable" abandonment of a "principled stance."

Most of the comments received by the ITD between July 5 and July 20, after the ITD had already publicly announced its plans to make Open XML an acceptable open format for state use, also appear to criticize the ITD's decision.

"Keeping all public records in an open format is the most responsible action any government agency can take," wrote Don Casteel.

Another writer, simply known as Brylie, wrote that "OOXML is an attempt to impose a standard on the public by abusing an overwhelming market share and the ignorance of users."

However, another writer, Donna Gilmour, argued that mandating the use of just ODF is a mistake because "in the end, you want the greatest number of choices for government agencies so that they can pick the best format and software for individual needs.... those of us who lived through the Big Dig know that picking winners makes Mass. citizens losers."

Many of the negative comments, however, were no doubt in response to calls by pro-open-standards blogs such as Groklaw and the Standards Blog, written by Updegrove.

On the other hand, Microsoft has also sent out letters to its formidable army of partners urging them to call politicians and write letters expressing their dislike of proposed open document formats mandates in state governments.

Though highly esoteric, Microsoft and ODF backers such as IBM view the policy battles over document formats in Massachusetts and other state and national governments as key for determining the future of the mighty Office franchise.

While ODF has won the support of several governments in Europe and Asia, Microsoft has so far defeated or watered down every legislative attempt in the U.S. to mandate the use of open formats such as ODF.

Microsoft is also awaiting the result of its bid to have Open XML, the native format of Office 2007, join ODF as an ISO-approved standard. A decision is expected this month.

So far, the battle has done little to disturb Office's dominance. Microsoft announced financial results last month showing strong early uptake in Office 2007 by both consumers and big businesses.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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