Opponents to ODF strike back in Massachusetts

But momentum for the format builds in Europe

A Massachusetts Senate committee released a report yesterday criticizing the state’s Information Technology Division (ITD), claiming that its “unilateral” plan to move all state employees to use software that reads and writes files in the OpenDocument format was poorly planned, ignored the needs of handicapped workers and violated state law.

Also yesterday, the Danish government said it will launch a four-month pilot program in September to use the OpenDocument format (ODF), another part of the Scandinavian country’s broad endorsement of open computing standards. The program will start with Denmark’s finance and science ministries and possibly others, said Adam Lebech, head of the IT governance division within the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Denmark’s decision follows Belgium, which mandated last week that its federal agencies must use software that can read ODF documents by September 2007.

In Massachusetts, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, headed by state Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, released a report  titled “Open Standards, Closed Government: ITD’s Deliberate Disregard for Public Process.” 

The report criticizes the ITD for failing to evaluate the cost of the proposal, the impact it could have on the state’s public records and limitations on IT accessibility for the disabled, and ultimately for violating state law.

State CIO Louis Gutierrez did not return calls for comment.

Massachusetts made headlines worldwide last September when then-state CIO Peter Quinn finalized a plan to begin migrating to OpenDocument formats for reading and saving reports, spreadsheets and presentations by Jan. 1.

Andy Updegrove, an open-source advocate and Boston lawyer, said the report rehashes old criticisms and is one-sided. "Certainly, the ITD made some mistakes, but there were two sides to this story. Unfortunately, only one is reflected" in the report's main findings, he said.

Updegrove also said that the Microsoft Office plug-ins the ITD is now evaluating sidestep the thorniest issues with OpenDocument for disabled computer users. "As a result, the recommendation of the committee to delay conversion until adequate accessibility tools are available is simply not necessary," he said.

Melanie Wyne, executive director for the Initiative for Software Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group managed by the CompTIA association, said the report echoes her organization's point of view.

ITD “never defined what was open; they just picked a certain technology,” she said. “It’s a technology mandate by another name.”

But Will Rodger, public policy director for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, an advocacy group also based in Washington, said that OpenDocument, which was ratified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in May, is the only true open standard today.

“Folks are saying we don’t want vendor lock-in from anyone,” Rodger said.

The report recommends delaying the switch to OpenDocument unless the ITD can show that disabled users won’t find their ability to access documents in the OpenDocument format compromised.

Sun Microsystems Inc., one of OpenDocument’s chief backers, said it may have a solution. Earlier this week, company officials demonstrated to ITD and disabled community activists how Microsoft Office plug-ins can be converted to open and save files in OpenDocument.  Using Dragon’s Naturally Speaking, a popular text-to-speech software, users could listen to OpenDocument files read “flawlessly” out loud, according to Douglas Johnson, Sun's corporate standards program manager.

The ITD in May put out a call for plug-ins that could either provide a bridge between Microsoft Office and whatever application government employees use in the future, or that would allow workers to continue to use Office.  

Barbara Lybarger, general counsel for the Massachusetts Office on Disability, confirmed that Sun’s plug-in “performed very well. I was quite impressed.” But she said the “devil is in the details” and called for the ITD to properly test such solutions with handicapped beta users.

Lybarger said that recent relations between her agency and the ITD “have been very cooperative” and that they will support moving to OpenDocument as long as it “works as well as what [handicapped] users already have.”

In Denmark, ministries will continue to publish documents using HTML, Microsoft Corp.’s “.doc” format and PDF (portable document format) from Adobe Systems Inc., said Lebech, head of the IT governance division within the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Denmark’s parliament passed a motion earlier this month to encourage the use of open standards within the government, Lebech said. The government has also published a catalog of standards with some recommendations, but has not stated a preference for a document format.

“We’re taking a stand that says we want to look at each standard from a neutral viewpoint and see what are their merits to better implement Parliament’s decision as best we can,” Lebech said.

Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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