OpenDocument Plug-ins May Preserve Use of Office in Mass.

Microsoft still in the picture as state plans to move ahead

Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez last week reiterated that the availability of third-party plug-in software enabling Microsoft Office users to open and save files in the OpenDocument format would meet the state's requirement that its executive agencies use standard document formats.

Gutierrez's comments came after a Silicon Valley programmer disclosed that he has developed an Office plug-in supporting OpenDocument, which is formally known as the Open Document Format for Office Applications.

Louis Gutierrez, CIO for the state of Massachusetts

Louis Gutierrez, CIO for the state of Massachusetts

The programmer, Gary Edwards of Redwood City, Calif., is active in promoting the use of OpenDocument. He said the plug-in is meant to enable fed-up users of Office to switch to alternatives such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice, IBM 's Workplace or the OpenOffice application suite. The plug-in "is like a key that unlocks them from Microsoft Office and lets them take the first step sideways" toward another product, he said.

But Gutierrez said that such technology could clear the way for Massachusetts agencies to continue using Office after the state's policy mandating the use of OpenDocument goes into effect in January. "We have a large installed base of Office suites, and the availability of a plug-in [supporting OpenDocument] would meet our policy requirements," he said.

Seeking Assistance

In an interview with Computerworld last month, Gutierrez said tools that could convert files between Microsoft Corp.'s formats and OpenDocument would let the state avoid "months of question marks" over whether Office qualifies for continued use.

And now the state's IT division is actively looking for conversion software, via a request for information issued May 3. The RFI asks for information about plug-ins or other converters that could work with existing Office 2000 and 2003 installations and with Office 2007, which Microsoft plans to release by year's end.

Gutierrez was appointed state CIO in January after the resignation of predecessor Peter Quinn, the architect of the OpenDocument plan. Gutierrez last week said there hasn't been any "chill" in the state's attitude toward the use of open-source software, adding that its policy has never explicitly mandated that agencies move away from Office, despite Microsoft's refusal to support OpenDocument.

"I believe firmly in the technical reference model created [by the state] and the IT division's promotion of it, but my position is that it does not particularly advantage or disadvantage any particular office suite," Gutierrez said.

Although the OpenDocument policy is due to take effect next January, Gutierrez has said that state officials will deliver a status update next month. The process in Massachusetts is being closely watched as a test case by other government bodies and other organizations that are looking to adopt OpenDocument, which was accepted two weeks ago by the International Standards Organization.

The pursuit of a plug-in for Office "does not change the state's standard for open documents," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch in New York. "So far, I don't think they are backing away."

Microsoft is promoting Open XML, a new file format native to Office 2007, as an open standard. But Alan Yates, general manager in charge of Microsoft's information worker business strategy, said the company welcomes the development of Office plug-ins for OpenDocument. "We have always expected that third parties would create bridges between the two sets of XML-based formats," he said.

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

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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