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Massachusetts moves ahead sans Microsoft

State finalizes policy calling for desktop applications supporting OpenDocument standard format. Microsoft Office is excluded.

The commonwealth of Massachusetts has finalized its decision to standardize desktop applications on OpenDocument, a format not supported by Microsoft Office.

The state on Wednesday posted the final version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model, which mandates new document formats for office productivity applications.

As it proposed late last month before a comment period, Massachusetts has decided to use only products that conform to the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocument, which is developed by the standards body OASIS.

State agencies in the executive branch are now supposed to migrate to OpenDocument-compliant applications by Jan. 1, 2007, a change that will affect about 50,000 desktop PCs. The reference model also confirms that Adobe's PDF format is considered an "open format."

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What's new:
Agencies in Massachusetts' executive branch will use only desktop software applications that conform to OpenDocument standards, which excludes Microsoft Office.

Bottom line:
Some observers have praised the move as a bold step toward breaking Microsoft's monopoly on desktop applications. The state says it will save money by migrating to OpenDocuments-based products rather than to Office 12. Others argue that the decision to use only OpenDocuments-based products severely narrows the state's options.

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The move to adopt OpenDocument shuts Microsoft out of the state's procurement process because the software giant, which dominates the office application market, has said it does not intend to support the OpenDocument format.

Microsoft's Office 12, which is due in the second half of next year, will store Office documents in an XML format. XML is also the basis of OpenDocument. However, Microsoft executives have consistently said that the company will not support OpenDocument natively and rely instead on "filters" to convert formats.

OpenDocument is used in open-source application products, such as OpenOffice and variants of it from companies including Sun Microsystems, IBM and Novell.

On Friday, a Microsoft manager questioned whether the IT division's technical reference model is really the last word on state policy.

"We understand that this is not a final decision for the commonwealth and that state lawmakers and the secretary of state have raised some of the same questions and concerns about this proposal that many others have raised," Alan Yates, Microsoft general manager of information worker business strategy, said in a statement. "Some in state government have talked about potential hearings to delve into this issue further, and we encourage that additional public review and evaluation."

Even before finalizing its plan, Massachusetts' embrace of OpenDocument has stirred strong reactions, both positive and negative.

Some have praised the state's policies as the best way to break Microsoft's monopolistic control of the PC software market. Others, including Microsoft and software industry groups, have criticized the state, saying its decisions narrow choices to open-source products.

"The commonwealth's decision is a watershed event for the adoption of open standards," Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards, said in an e-mail Friday. "Massachusetts residents, rather than any one vendor, now control their own information."

The OpenDocument format is being considered by some European governments, including Norway, Denmark and Japan, as well as other U.S. state governments, an IBM representative said.

Meanwhile, foes of Massachusetts' policy said the state is acting unfairly.

During a hearing regarding the proposal last week, Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, said that Massachusetts was moving ahead with a policy before it had adequately considered the cost or the potential impact.

He also questioned the state's endorsement of Adobe PDF and the decision to rely on standards organizations.

"You seem to have selectively chosen one format (Adobe's PDF) that has some IP associated with (it) and said, 'That's OK, but this one (Microsoft Office) isn't.' So I'm curious about the consistency," Zuck told Peter Quinn, the state's CIO, and Eric Kriss, the state's secretary of administration and finance. "We all know that standards groups are not hives of innovation by any means."

Massachusetts officials defended their decision, saying the move will save the state money, make sure that state records will be preserved over time, and ensure the state's "sovereignty."

In a FAQ, the state's Information Technology Division said that current users of Microsoft Office in executive-branch agencies do not necessarily need to uninstall Office. "Use of existing MS Office licenses is allowed as long as agencies use a method permitting the saving of documents in Open Document Format," the FAQ said. Third-party products could in theory perform a conversion from Office to OpenDocument formats.

In addition, Microsoft could still become part of the state's procurement policy by meeting its definition of open formats, Kriss said at an open-format meeting, which was held last Friday with the Mass Technology Leadership Council.

Kriss said that Microsoft's Office formats would have to be free of or have minimal legal encumbrances and be a standard that is subject to peer review by organizations outside Microsoft. He added that Microsoft document formats would have to be subject to "joint stewardship" by a standards body not controlled by one company or a small consortium.

"If you were to do (those things), we would be delighted to do a technical comparison of your standards and the OpenDocument standard," Kriss said, addressing a Microsoft representative. He added that the question is a "moving target" because Microsoft has already made some modifications to its patent policy.

On the question of why Adobe's PDF format meets the definition of "open format," state officials said it was a "gray area" but that Adobe's legal and licensing terms were deemed sufficiently open.

During the hearing, Kriss said that the state would save significantly by migrating to OpenDocument-based products rather than going with Office 12--on the order of $5 million for OpenDocument versus $50 million for Office 12, including hardware and operating-system upgrade costs.

But he said that fundamentally the state's policy is based in the notion of sovereignty.

"Here we have a true conflict between the notion of intellectual property and the notion of sovereignty, and I'd say that 100 percent of the time in a democracy, sovereignty trumps intellectual property," Kriss said. "That's the issue we're grappling with."

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