Mass. Set to Mix Office With ODF

State will stick with Microsoft's apps but add plug-ins for open file format

Massachusetts last week officially confirmed that its executive agencies for now will continue using Microsoft Office instead of switching to alternative desktop applications. But by Jan. 1, in keeping with a controversial policy announced last year, the state plans to start adding plug-in software that will let its Office users create and save files in the industry-standard OpenDocument format.

The announcement was a victory for advocates of people with disabilities, who had contended that other desktop applications now available are less compatible than Office is with screen readers and other accessibility tools used by blind, deaf and mobility-impaired end users.

For Microsoft Corp., the state's decision represents something of a mixed bag. The software vendor had viewed Massachusetts as a key battleground in its effort to maintain Office's dominance of the desktop applications market. However, although state agencies will continue to use Office, Massachusetts didn't back away from its January 2007 deadline for switching from Microsoft's file formats to OpenDocument.

In addition, the state has yet to agree to add Microsoft's Open XML technology to its list of approved open file formats, which includes OpenDocument and the Portable Document Format. Microsoft developed Open XML for its Office 2007 release, due late this year.

Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez

Massachusetts CIO Louis GutierrezMassachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez declined to comment about last week's announcement. But in an e-mail message sent two weeks ago to the state's IT advisory board, Gutierrez wrote that his office had "tried to thread a needle" by seeking an approach that would support a move toward standard document formats and encourage vendor competition yet maintain full desktop accessibility and be both economical and minimally disruptive to agencies.

Gutierrez added in the email, which was released by the state last week, that the plug-in strategy will let agencies continue to leverage the accessibility features of Office while Microsoft's desktop application rivals and third-party developers "resolve a doable list of accessibility fixes and enhancements."

Eventually, state agencies will be able to choose between sticking with Office or moving to alternative software, Gutierrez wrote. In the meantime, he noted, existing Office installations will be able to work with OpenDocument, which is formally called the Open Document Format for Office Applications and also referred to as ODF.

Gutierrez met with accessibility advocates on Aug. 18 to detail the state's plan. In an official letter that he sent to them last Wednesday, the CIO wrote that the plan calls for the Massachusetts Office on Disability and other early-adopter agencies to begin using Office plug-ins that support ODF by Jan. 1. The state expects to migrate its other executive agencies to ODF by next June in a phased rollout.

However, Gutierrez added in the letter that the target dates "are not set in stone." He wrote that the state's plan depends on several factors, including the adoption of a new version of ODF being developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) that addresses "minor accessibility issues."

Also, vendors have to deliver ODF translator plug-ins that are suitable for use with Office by November in order to meet the initial Jan. 1 rollout date, Gutierrez wrote.

John Winske, chairman of the Boston-based Disability Policy Consortium, said after the Aug. 18 meeting with Gutierrez that the state's amended plan is "fantastic news" for government workers with disabilities in Massachusetts.

"I couldn't imagine a better victory," Winske said. "Now, instead of what could have been a very disastrous policy and very bad news for employees with disabilities, we're going to have a strong advocate [for accessibility] on our side."

Open XML Alternative?

ODF became an OASIS standard last year and was ratified by the International Standards Organization in May. The upstart file format is supported by desktop applications such as StarOffice from Sun Microsystems Inc. and OpenOffice, an open-source offshoot of the Sun suite.

Proponents of ODF are touting it as an alternative to Open XML, and they hope that encouraging the adoption of a non-Microsoft format will help loosen Office's hold on its more than 400 million end users worldwide. The national governments of Belgium and Denmark have also moved to adopt ODF for internal use.

Massachusetts first said it was moving toward ODF last August, when it had a different CIO. But Gutierrez found himself in a bind when he took over the state's IT division in February, because StarOffice, OpenOffice and other ODF-compliant applications aren't fully supported by the major vendors of screen readers, magnifiers and other assistive technologies.

The plug-in approach has been in the works for months. In May, Gutierrez issued a request for information about ODF translator plug-ins that could work with existing versions of Office as well as Office 2007. Microsoft was among the vendors that responded. And early last month, the company announced that it was funding an open-source project to develop free ODF plug-ins for Office.

One thing that Massachusetts and Microsoft have yet to reach a meeting of the minds on is Open XML. However, Gutierrez wrote in his letter that his department plans to review the state's Enterprise Technical Reference Model every six months to take into account technology changes and evolving standards.

Alan Yates, general manager of information worker business strategy at Microsoft, said via a spokeswoman that the IT division in Massachusetts "appears to be working in a very practical and constructive way ... in moving carefully to standards-based XML document formats."

But Douglas Johnson, Sun's corporate standards program manager, maintained that open-source accessibility tools 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 using Office is]," Johnson said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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