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Massachusetts to adopt 'open' desktop

State intends to phase out office applications from Microsoft and others in favor of software based on "open" standards.

The commonwealth of Massachusetts has proposed a plan to phase out office productivity applications from Microsoft and other providers in favor of those based on "open" standards, including the recently approved OpenDocument standard.

The state described the plan in a posting made to its Web site earlier this week as part of a public review process which ends Sept. 9. Massachusetts agencies have until Jan. 1, 2007, to install applications that support the OpenDocument file formats and phase out other products.

By then, agencies must have applications that save documents in that format by default. Massachusetts will also sanction use of Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format (PDF) format, which it says "meet(s) criteria of openness and (is) therefore considered acceptable at this time." Documents need to adhere to a version of PDF that supports XML.

"Given (that) the majority of executive department agencies currently use office applications such as MS Office, Lotus Notes and WordPerfect that produce documents in proprietary formats, the magnitude of the migration effort to this new open standard is considerable," according to the state's Enterprise Technical Reference Model, a document that describes the state's standards guidelines for data, documents and records.

The state's move is a boost to the relatively new standard, whose full name is the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications. It's also a blow to Microsoft, which dominates the office application market and has found government customers to be among those most aggressively considering open-source alternatives.

The OpenDocument format, which was ratified as a standard in May, covers office applications, including word processors, spreadsheets and charts.

It is the default format for the OpenOffice open-source suite of applications and is supported in suites by Novell and Sun Microsystems and by IBM in its Workplace products.

OpenDocument uses the data-tagging method XML to format and store documents. Because these XML formats, or schemas, are published as standards, Massachusetts considers them an "open format" and suitable for saving official public records--a rising concern among government agencies.

In a statement posted Monday, Massachusetts' chief information officer, Peter Quinn, said that the state met with industry representatives earlier this year about office applications and its standards.

"These discussions have centered on open formats, particularly as they relate to office documents, their importance for the current and future accessibility of government records, and the relative 'openness' of the format options available to us," Quinn said.

In the upcoming version of Microsoft Office12, which is due next year, Microsoft intends to support XML by default. However, the company has not chosen to natively support the OpenDocument format and instead will rely on "filters" to convert XML document formats.

Alan Yates, Microsoft's general manager of Information Worker business strategy, criticized the Massachusetts proposal, saying it was "confusing". He said it uses different criteria for openness for office documents, data and Adobe PDF.

"We were surprised by the narrowing of the approach to openness," Yates said. "There are many other different options that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has here that many other countries and states are doing."

Yates reiterated the Microsoft does not intend to natively support the OpenDocument format, which he said was very specific to the OpenOffice 2.0 open-source suite.

He said Microsoft can provide the same data interoperability and archiving that Massachusetts is pursuing because Microsoft publishes the XML schema of its Office applications and makes available through a royalty free license.

One 300-member coalition called the Initiative for Software Choice which is affiliated with the Computing Technology Industry Association ( CompTIA) said that the Massachusetts proposal was "troubling" and limits competition in the state's procurement process.

"As a practical matter, it mandates that state agencies use OpenOffice software," said the group's executive director Melanie Wyne. "They can achieve the same goals without creating a mandate for one kind of licensing model."

RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, in a blog posting, said a move by Massachusetts to OpenDocument could be significant if other governmental organizations follow the state's lead.

"The importance here is more symbolic than anything, of course. While Massachusetts is undoubtedly a sizable contract for Microsoft, the revenue is incidental to the big picture: a sizable win in the US for the ODF (OpenDocument Format)," O'Grady wrote. "As many purveyors of alternative desktop or office productivity tools can tell you, traction for their products have been good to great in various geographies abroad, but far less impressive here in the United States."

Massachusetts--which continued to sue Microsoft over alleged antitrust issues even after the federal government and other states had settled--has fully embraced open-source software and "open" standards internally.

The state, which expects to save money by adopting these standards, last year launched a project to make more efficient use of open-source software by encouraging sharing between agencies.