Tech Industry

Mass. holding tight to OpenDocument

State is sticking to its plan to standardize on OpenDocument, says the incoming CIO, describing the move as irreversible.

Massachusetts is sticking to its plan to adopt OpenDocument, despite a critical report calling for a delay to the high-profile move.

Louis Gutierrez, Massachusetts' chief information officer, said in an interview with CNET that the Information Technology Division (ITD) is forging ahead with its project to make OpenDocument the default document format for executive branch agencies by January next year.

"Our next action is to do what we are doing right now, which is working toward the goal. We believe in the utility of open standards," Gutierrez said Friday.

On Thursday, state Sen. Marc Pacheco, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, released a report that blasted the process behind the choice of OpenDocument, calling it "closed" and controlled by a few individuals.

Gutierrez said he disagreed with the report's characterization of the process that led up to the state's decision to standardize on OpenDocument, or ODF. But he noted that the oversight committee was not opposed to the state's movement to open standards.

"There is substantial concurrence on going forward in the right way," Gutierrez.

The report's release and the ITD's response to it are the latest twists in a months-long saga in Massachusetts that has attracted worldwide attention.

Supporters of the state's plan to go with OpenDocument, rather than a Microsoft format, have hailed it as a landmark move that will tilt the balance of power to customers and away from vendors. Critics, meanwhile, have called it a biased decision, unfairly favoring open-source products to the exclusion of Microsoft.

The state's efforts to wrest control of its data from proprietary formats appears to have struck a chord with a number of government agencies, companies and even individuals seeking to avoid "vendor lock-in."

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OpenDocument: CNET reporter Martin LaMonica finds out from Louis Gutierrez, CIO of Massachusetts' IT division, why he's pressing ahead with OpenDocument.

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Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk, said that Massachusetts has validated the idea of standardizing on a non-Microsoft format, giving its effort a symbolic significance for others.

"Many enterprises are not thrilled about paying Microsoft what they do for Office, but feel like they have to. ODF by itself does not remove those concerns, but it does begin to open doors that were not there previously, if only from a negotiating standpoint," O'Grady said.

Although Gutierrez was not involved in the original decision to choose OpenDocument, he lauded the decision as the right thing to do.

"That move has helped move the dial for everyone," he said, noting Microsoft has submitted its own document formats to standards bodies and that it has made changes to its licensing terms.

"I think it was surely controversial and it did, in fact, have certain defects the process...But it was the right thing. It's something that will be recognized as having been an important step in a really valid direction," he said.

The promise of plug-ins
Since taking over the reins as CIO earlier in January this year, Gutierrez has led a few pilot projects of OpenDocument-compliant products from Sun Microsystems, IBM and the open-source OpenOffice suite.

The state has also engaged IT services company EDS to do a full-scale, five-year cost analysis of moving to OpenDocument, which Gutierrez said the state was nearly done with.

In addition, the state has hired an expert and created a lab to address the needs of people with disabilities--an area where Pacheco and some disabilities advocates have been critical of the planned OpenDocument move.

Although observers initially thought the state's decision to use OpenDocument would lead to the removal of Microsoft Office from 50,000 desktops in Massachusetts, Gutierrez said that Office may stay around.

Louis Gutierrez
Massachusetts CIO
Louis Gutierrez

He said the state's IT department is investigating a plug-in that would allow people using Office to save and share documents in the OpenDocument format. Microsoft has said it will not build support for OpenDocument into Office 2007, citing lack of demand.

So far, that plug-in approach shows "enormous promise" because it could meet accessibility requirements and potentially cost less than a large-scale migration, Gutierrez said.

He added that he is prepared to evaluate Microsoft's Open Office XML formats, which are expected to become standardized next year.

But what's essential is a transition to XML-based document formats like OpenDocument, Gutierrez said.

"Our whole mindset is around writing memos and saving them to disk, but that is not the future of this. The future is about document workflow, and document workflow is greatly enhanced with XML-based documents," he said. "And it's hard to work with XML-based documents unless you have the standard form."

Gutierrez added that the Massachusetts IT Division, in conjunction with the Secretary of Administration and Finance, intends to give a formal update on the project in late July or early August.

Pacheco, who presented the oversight committee's report on Thursday, agreed in principle with the benefits of standards, but he was sharply critical of the process leading to the OpenDocument policy.

Pacheco's report contended that the state's IT division set the policy without having the legal authority and without sufficient input from people with disabilities. In addition, he said that ITD officials did not perform a proper cost/benefit analysis before finalizing the plan.

"The principles of open standards may offer the benefits of decreased costs and interoperability of documents, but the ITD did not pursue the policy in an open, collaborative or lawful manner," Pacheco said at a press conference at the Massachusetts State House in Boston.

He said that former Secretary of Finance and Administration Eric Kriss and former CIO had decided on OpenDocument and deliberately disregarded the typically open process of choosing standards and technologies.

Quinn stepped down as CIO last December after facing political pressure, saying his presence has become a distraction to the implementation of the OpenDocument plan.

Gutierrez, who was hired to complete the implementation plan, said that the hoopla around the OpenDocument decision has had a "chilling effect" on other state CIOs. States have expressed interested in OpenDocument but are "waiting and watching" what happens in Massachusetts, he said.

"It's a mark of our times that technology decisions have become as important and interesting to the public discourse," Gutierrez said. "My own hope is that we move away from the theatre of conflict."

Gutierrez was named by current Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who will finish his term at the end of this year. Gutierrez said that it's possible the arrival of new governor could set the ongoing OpenDocument implementation off track, but it would only be a temporary delay.

"Massachusetts' stepping out on this in a technical reference model, saying this is where we're heading...triggered this firestorm we're all walking through," he said. "I really do believe this is an almost inevitable direction, and it's a question of when, not if. Even if there are a couple of spasms in the history, it's going there."