California may join rush of states toward ODF

Bill would require state agencies to use open file formats starting next year

A California legislator last Friday introduced a bill that would mandate the use of open, XML-based document file formats by the state government starting next January. It is the third such state-level legislation to be introduced this month.

The bill, officially known as AB 1668, would require state agencies to "create, exchange and preserve all documents, as specified, and to start to become equipped to receive any document in an open, XML-based file format." The measure would also require the California Department of Technology Services (DTS) to evaluate all qualifying file formats and develop usage guidelines for agencies to follow.

California joins Minnesota and Texas, where similar bills were filed earlier this month. If approved, the bills in the latter two states would take effect in July and September of next year, respectively.

Like the other two measures, the bill in the California Assembly doesn't list any specific document formats that could be used. But as in Minnesota and Texas, the introduction of such a bill appears to be another potential win for backers of the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications.

ODF is used by the open-source desktop applications suite and is being pushed by vendors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. as an alternative to the new Office Open XML format that Microsoft Corp. has developed for its Office 2007 software. Backers claim that ODF is more suitable for long-term archiving of public files than Open XML is, because it has already been certified and published as an open standard by the Geneva-based ISO standards body, and because it is used natively by software that is freely available.

The California bill specifies that in evaluating file formats, the DTS should consider factors such as their ability to interoperate "between diverse internal and external platforms and applications," and whether they are available royalty-free, have been implemented by multiple vendors and are controlled by an open group "with a well-defined inclusive process for evolution of the standard."

Microsoft didn't immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment. The software vendor has gained standards certification for Open XML from Ecma International, another standards group based in Geneva, and it now is seeking ISO approval as well. If that happens, both ODF and Open XML potentially could become eligible for governments to use under any of the proposed new mandates.

That could further muddy the already unclear effect that open document policies can have on government agencies. For instance, Massachusetts in late 2005 became the first state to adopt a plan to shift to open document formats. But last August, state officials announced that government agencies there would continue to use Microsoft Office for now while adding plug-ins that would let end users open and save files in ODF.

That move was made partly to satisfy advocates for people with disabilities, who had contended that desktop applications such as OpenOffice are less compatible than Microsoft Office is with screen readers and other accessibility tools used by blind, deaf and mobility-impaired end users. In addition, Louis Gutierrez, then the state's CIO, wrote in an e-mail to its IT advisory board that he had sought an approach that would be economical and minimally disruptive to the affected government agencies.

The California bill was proposed by state assembly member Mark Leno, a Democrat who represents the eastern part of San Francisco, including its Marina, downtown and industrial-but-gentrifying South of Market neighborhoods. Leno's Sacramento office didn't return a call seeking comment on the measure.

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