Massachusetts confirms it will stay on Office for now

But it will soon begin using OpenDocument Format plug-ins

In a long-expected move, the commonwealth of Massachusetts on Wednesday officially confirmed that it will for now continue to use Microsoft Office but employ outside software plug-ins allowing government workers to open and save files in the OpenDocument Format (ODF) by next year.

The announcement is a victory for local advocates of people with disabilities, who had fought against the state move to alternatives to Microsoft Office, which they said were less compatible with accessibility tools used by blind, deaf or mobility-impaired computer users in conjunction with Office. It is also a triumph for Microsoft, which views Massachusetts as a key battleground as it tries to maintain Office's dominance.

ODF is a free XML file format used by the free OpenOffice and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice, among other suites. It competes with Open XML, the native file format developed by Microsoft for its upcoming Office 2007 suite.

In his official midyear letter (download PDF) to Gov. Mitt Romney, state CIO Louis Gutierrez wrote that early-adopter agencies, including the Massachusetts Office on Disability, will begin using the ODF plug-ins by Jan. 1, 2007. The plug-ins allow Office users to read, create and save files in the aforementioned free XML file format.

"Thereafter, we plan to migrate all Executive Department agencies to compliance with the standard, in phases, by June of 2007," Gutierrez wrote. "In order to meet our implementation timetable, the commonwealth requires delivery of a translator suitable for use by early adopters by November of this year."

Encouraging the use of non-Microsoft-backed file formats could remove one of the greatest incentives for using Office and loosen the software's hold on more than 400 million users worldwide. A number of European governments, including Belgium and Denmark, have also moved to adopt ODF for official business.

The IT Division did not say it is adding Open XML to its list of approved open formats, of which ODF is one. Microsoft is submitting Open XML to the European Computer Manufacturers Association (Ecma) for acceptance as an internationally recognized open standard, a status ODF already garnered from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in May. Moreover, the newly announced November deadline could prove too tight for Microsoft-backed third-party plug-ins that provide Office-to-ODF compatibility to be used by the state.

Microsoft said last month that it expects a Word plug-in to be ready by December, with Excel and PowerPoint plug-ins to follow in 2007.

However, in a Wednesday blog posting, Brian Jones, a Microsoft developer working on Office file formats, wrote that the second beta release for the Word plug-in was made available on Aug. 18, and indicated the plug-in has garnered 25,000 downloads since its initial beta release in July.

Jones' blog does not say whether the Microsoft-backed plug-in is now being tested by the Massachusetts IT Division. Through a spokeswoman, Microsoft said it did not know whether Massachusetts had downloaded and was testing its ODF plug-in.

Alan Yates, general manager of information work business strategy, praised the IT Division for "moving carefully to standards-based XML document formats."

Gutierrez did not return a request for comment, and a spokesman for the governor's office declined to comment.

But several plug-in developers confirmed that the IT Division is actively putting the technology through its paces. "Accessibility is right at the top of the state's list, along with high document fidelity," said Gary Edwards, whose OpenDocument Foundation Inc. is one of the developers. "We do think we can handle everything that they're throwing at us."

Sun's plug-ins are also now being tested by the state, according to Douglas Johnson, corporate standards program manager at Sun. They have been praised before by accessibility advocates in Massachusetts.

In his letter, Gutierrez conceded that alternatives to Microsoft Office today "are unlikely to be fully supported by assistive technology vendors, or alternatively to include fully functional adaptations in the packaged product, by January 1, 2007, the original target date for ODF implementation."

However, he said ODF-based suites such as StarOffice or OpenOffice remain a possibility in the future.

"When the alternative, ODF-supporting office suites become more accessible in the future, they too will provide a means by which the Executive Department can meet its long-term goal of implementing open document standards," he wrote.

Johnson, however, maintains that open-source tools for people with disabilities such as Orca, a screen reader that speaks text for the blind, and Dasher, a text-input tool useful for those with impaired coordination such as from cerebral palsy, can already work well with OpenOffice and StarOffice.

"I think that free, open-source accessibility technologies that go with a free OpenOffice is a better story [than Microsoft Office]," he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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