Office-to-OpenDocument plug-in gets backing from Mass. CIO

Louis Gutierrez says the plug-in would meet a state mandate

Massachusetts' top technology official said yesterday that third-party plug-in software that allows Microsoft Office users to open and save files in the OpenDocument format would meet the state’s Jan 1, 2007, deadline for using open and standardized document formats.

That could pave the way for the state of Massachusetts to continue using Microsoft Office. The state announced last year that its workers would start using and saving memos, spreadsheets and presentations in OpenDocument, a move widely viewed as a de facto embrace of alternative office software such as the free OpenOffice.

"We have a large installed base of Office suites, and the availability of a plug-in would meet our policy requirements and would allow a more seamless transition to an environment that would meet our policy for open and standard document formats," said Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez.

In a public request for information (RFI) dated May 3, the state asked for information on "creating an ODF-translator" that would work with Microsoft Office 2000 and 2003, currently used by state employees, as well as Office 2007, which Microsoft is expected to release by the end of this year. The state’s RFI resulted in the state learning about a plug-in being created by a Silicon Valley software developer active in promoting OpenDocument.

Gutierrez, who was appointed in January after the previous CIO, Peter Quinn, resigned, denied any sudden "chill" in the state’s attitude toward open-source software or open standards. But he said the state’s policy has never explicitly mandated moving off Office, despite Microsoft’s refusal to support the OpenDocument standard.

"I believe firmly in the technical reference model created and the IT Division’s promotion of it, but my position is that it does not particularly advantage or disadvantage any particular office suite," he said. That follows comments Gutierrez made to Computerworld in an interview last month in which he said the availability of an OpenDocument file converter for Office would settle "months of question marks over whether Microsoft Office products will ultimately qualify under the policy" (see "New Mass. CIO Defends Open Document Plan").

One analyst said the state’s interest in a plug-in, especially one that would work with the unreleased Office 2007, is the strongest sign yet of a weakening of ex-CIO Quinn’s explicitly pro-open-source agenda. "I don’t necessarily believe that the plug-in would 'kill' OpenOffice adoption, but it does go a long way toward negating one pressing impetus for the state of Massachusetts," said Laura DiDio, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc.

But another analyst, Joe Wilcox of JupiterResearch, said that the plug-in "does not change the state’s standard for open documents. So far, I don’t think they are backing away."

Gary Edwards, a Redwood City, Calif., programmer and co-founder of OpenDocument Foundation Inc., created the plug-in. He said it's meant to enable fed-up users of Office products to switch to alternatives such as Sun Microsystem Inc.’s StarOffice, IBM’s Workplace or OpenOffice, which its developers claim has been downloaded 63 million times.

"They may have looked at installing OpenOffice, but for many it’s too disruptive," he said. The plug-in "is like a key that unlocks them from Microsoft Office and lets them take the first step sideways toward OpenOffice."

Massachusetts’ attempt to implement its technology plan is being closely watched worldwide as a test case by governments and other organizations looking to adopt the OpenDocument standard, which was accepted last week by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

Supporters of OpenDocument say a single, open standard ensures long-term compatibility, allowing archived documents saved digitally in OpenDocument to be accessible in the future. They hope that the free format will eventually become as widely used as JPEGs and GIFs are in the graphics arena.

But the plan has drawn ire from some Massachusetts politicians, who think the state is interfering in the free market, as well as groups representing people with disabilities, who say OpenDocument fails, for example, to support text-to-speech features crucial to blind users as well as Microsoft Office does.

Microsoft, which claims there are more than 400 million Office users worldwide, is supporting a new format native to Office 2007, OpenXML, which it is promoting for acceptance as an open standard.

Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft’s information worker business strategy, said Microsoft welcomes the plug-in. "We have always expected that third parties would work on this set of issues and create bridges between the two sets of XML-based formats," he said.

There are other alternatives besides Edwards’ plug-in. For example,  a New Zealand-based open-source project has developed free software that's designed to convert Microsoft Word files into OpenDocument. According to the project'sWeb site, the software, called DocVert, "generally" works, though "some embedded objects within MSWord may not convert successfully." However, DocVert is not conveniently embedded into Microsoft Word; it is run separately.

Edwards said his plug-in can already save Word documents in OpenDocument while retaining formatting and other metadata. More work is needed, however, to make Excel and PowerPoint save files properly in OpenDocument, he said.

Edwards was formerly OpenOffice.org's technical liaision to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), the consortium that fought to turn OpenDocument into a standard. But that pedigree hasn’t made Edwards immune from criticism by OpenOffice advocates.

"I understand that Massachusetts is under the gun to migrate, and that this might make it easier to fulfill their mandate," said Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager for OpenOffice.org. But in general, he added, "I see anything that extends the life of Microsoft Office as problematic."

Edwards conceded that a side effect of his and other possible plug-ins could be to slow the adoption of OpenOffice. "Yes, I want to see OpenOffice on every desktop," he said. "But I think in many ways you are right to say that, yes, we are extending the usefulness of Microsoft Office."

Partly as a concession to his open-source critics, Edwards said he is not now working on making the plug-in work with Office 2007. But he acknowledged that if Massachusetts was interested enough in Office 2007 compatibility to pay for it, he would be hard-pressed to refuse to build it.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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