Massachusetts says it's open to multiple formats

State senators air the issues around its decision to use OpenDocument as the default desktop application format.

BOSTON--Massachusetts legislators assembled some of the IT industry's most powerful companies Wednesday to discuss the state's electronic document standards, a closely watched decision with significance that has stretched far beyond state boundaries.

No policy decisions were made at the public forum, but two important state officials indicated that Massachusetts expects to eventually support multiple document standards for its productivity applications and electronic records.

A state IT policy that accommodates multiple document standards would allow Microsoft and companies that use the OpenDocument standard to compete in the state's procurement process. At present, Microsoft is excluded from competing for desktop application contracts in executive branch state agencies because it does not support OpenDocument.

The forum, held at the Massachusetts State House, was called by state senators to air the issues surrounding a controversial--and politicized--decision by the IT Division of the Secretary of Administration and Finance to mandate use of OpenDocument-based products by Jan. 1, 2007. OpenDocument is a set of standards for common desktop applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.

The state's endorsement of OpenDocument, a standard created by several vendors, has been hailed as a way to ensure access to electronic documents for many years, particularly for government customers.

"This is a hugely important topic and clearly one that is attracting international attention," said John Palfrey, professor of law and executive director at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Massachusetts is the canary in a coal mine. If the commonwealth gets it right, others will follow. It will be good for economy of the commonwealth but also good for democracy," he said at Wednesday's forum.

Microsoft does not intend to support OpenDocument in its next version of Office, which is due by the end of next year. However, the dominant productivity-application provider has submitted the XML-based document formats for Office to standards body Ecma International, which intends to create a standard in about a year.

At the forum, Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker division, said that once Microsoft's Office Open XML specifications are ratified as standards, customers such as Massachusetts will have more choice.

"The (Office) Open XML formats should be able to be considered side-by-side with the OASIS-delivered OpenDocument formats. They really did start from different places so there is a technology choice that you make to use one or the other or both," Yates said. "Our point is that using both is a really wise and easy choice."

Two other forum panelists--Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source and Bob Sproull, a Sun Microsystems fellow and vice president of Sun Labs in Massachusetts--disputed the contention that having several standards for document formats is desirable.

"The choice occurs at the applications that you use--it's really critical. You don't really want lots of standards underneath. The goal is to have one really good one and then we want a choice of different implementations that...work on different platforms," Sutor said.

Sutor told CNET News.com that IBM voted against the creation of the Ecma Office Open XML committee because, in part, it does not appear to be as inclusive as the OpenDocument process, which is happening at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

"We have to be careful just equating. Here (at OASIS) we have something developed by multiple community members over a period of time, versus 'Take what I've given you and don't change it,'" Sutor said.

The charter of the Open Office XML Ecma committee stated that the resulting specification has to be "backward compatible" with existing Microsoft Office formats.

Multiple "open standards"

Peter Quinn, chief information officer of the state's IT division, applauded Microsoft's effort to have its Office document formats standardized. He added that Massachusetts would be willing to have more than one document format standard if Microsoft goes through with its commitment to standardization and its licensing terms meet the state's needs.

"We're not going to change the rules that we got. It's a blueprint that's in place," Quinn told CNET News.com.

He added that the IT division will review its Enterprise Technical Reference Model next year and the effective date of the policy could move from early 2007 to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Separately, Quinn decried the politicization of the IT division's technology policy, saying it could have a "chilling effect" on other government officials who take unconventional stands.

"IT should be apolitical," he said. Quinn was cleared this week of a review of his travel expenses.

Meanwhile, the state's supervisor of public records Alan Cote--who has sharply criticized the IT division's choice of OpenDocument--said the state has been working on a plan to create a single electronic archive. Rather than choose a single document standard, he expects the system will work with multiple standardized formats.

"We want one policy for the commonwealth. That one policy will be an open policy; there's no doubt about it," Cote told CNET News.com. "My definition of open is that I don't have to buy the new version to get to old records."

He said that the state's records management and archive agency, which is under the jurisdiction of Secretary of State William Galvin, is still considering the appropriate options.

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