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Preparing for the open-standards onslaught

CCIA President Ed Black explains why he thinks Massachusetts has set an example other governments will follow.

Leave it to the state of Massachusetts--with its history of standing up against global empires that goes as far back as the waking days of this great country--to start a revolution toward interoperable technologies. Massachusetts gets the fact that our global economy has entered the "Participation Age." This era is marked by the democratic use of technologies by all levels of the social strata to interact, create and inform. Technologies that create walls between a state and its people are so 1775. This is why Massachusetts, led by its CIO Peter Quinn, is requiring the state's executive branch to use the OpenDocument format by 2007.

This decision breaks the citizens of the commonwealth free from the chains of mismatched and malfunctioning proprietary technologies, and embraces open and interoperable standards. Quite simply, it assures that the state and its citizens are able to access information now and in generations to come.

When the walls come down, you can't lock anyone out.

Above and beyond the technicalities, Massachusetts taxpayers will no longer be footing the bill for unnecessary licensing fees for the commonwealth to upgrade proprietary software. Perhaps the money that is saved can be channeled into other critical government services like health care and education.

OpenDocument is standardized by a public process, completely free of legal proprietary encumbrances and already implemented in multiple products. Massachusetts will reap long-term dividends from using it--namely accessibility to the widest audience--while preserving choice and interoperability of the best and most popular software applications.

Decisions like this will spur innovation and creativity for the technology industry as a whole since energy will be directed toward making better products based on the merits, not locking out competitors.

Why should the average citizen care about interoperability? Security and public safety are two compelling reasons. As proof, you only need look as far as the technological breakdowns in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast that were caused by lack of interoperability of technologies.

Let's also be clear: This decision is not a case of the state unfairly dictating a software preference. Rather, the state's guidelines make it clear that an application need only support open formats. When the walls come down, you can't lock anyone out.

Choice, competition and innovation leading to the best alternatives for governments and citizens are embedded in the foundation of free markets and capitalism. They are principles critical to bridging the digital divide.

Massachusetts rightly recognizes and protects the needs of employees and citizens with disabilities--both with the state's commitment to "work closely with this community to ensure that their legal rights are respected..." and their clear statement that "agencies can retain copies of MS Office as needed for disabled employees..." as applications that use the OpenDocument format continue to improve accessibility and productivity for the disabled. After all, disabled users deserve the same choice and freedom from license restrictions as everyone else.

The open-standards evolution has begun, with Massachusetts one of many states embracing open standards. And the evolution is not only within U.S. borders; already, governments in Australia, Singapore and the EU have joined. The question now is not if, but when, this movement will find its way into more governments and businesses worldwide. Who will be next to stand tall?