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Mass. to use Microsoft Office in ODF plan

In letter seen by CNET News.com, commonwealth says it'll use Office suite plug-in as it moves to standardized format.

Massachusetts will begin using OpenDocument as the default document format later this year as planned, but it will be sticking with Microsoft Office in the near term, the state's top technology executive said.

, Louis Gutierrez, chief information officer of Massachusetts' Information Technology Division, on Wednesday sent a letter seen by CNET News.com to advocates of people with disabilities. The letter was in response to their concerns about the commonwealth's plan to move to the OpenDocument format, or ODF, standard.

In addition, Gutierrez last week wrote to the state's Information Technology Advisory Board with an update on the OpenDocument format implementation plan, as had been planned.

Last year, Massachusetts caught international attention for its decision to standardize by January 2007 on ODF, a document format standard not supported in Microsoft Office.

Disability unfriendly?
The move was criticized by disability-rights groups, which complained that going to ODF-compliant products, such as the open-source OpenOffice suite, would not adequately address their needs. In general, Microsoft Office has better assistive technologies, such as screen enlargers.

Louis Gutierrez Louis Gutierrez

Earlier this year, Massachusetts' IT division said it would adjust the dates of the OpenDocument adoption if the state could not find adequate accessibility products.

In his letter to disability-rights groups, Gutierrez said emerging Microsoft Office plug-ins will enable Massachusetts to stick to its standardization policy while meeting accessibility needs. Plug-ins act as converters, enabling people to open and save documents in the OpenDocument format from Microsoft Office.

"This approach to ODF implementation will fulfill our legal and moral obligations to the community of people with disabilities, acknowledges the practical requirements of implementation and enables the Executive Department to continue to pursue the benefits of using open standards for information technology," Gutierrez wrote.

The state had considered adopting other office suites, such as OpenOffice and StarOffice, but Gutierrez decided against those because they would not support accessibility requirements by the January 2007 target date.

State executive branch agencies will take a phased approach to using a plug-in. Gutierrez did not indicate which plug-in the state intends to use but that he expects them to be fully functional by 2007.

"Early adopter" agencies, including the Massachusetts Office on Disability, will use a selected plug-in starting in December of this year. The IT division will then move all executive branch agencies in phases to the OpenDocument standard by June of next year.

Gutierrez added that the state will consider OpenDocument format-compliant Microsoft Office alternatives as they become more mature.

Not "anti"-vendor
In his letter to the state's Information Technology Advisory Board, Gutierrez referred to the economic and political factors that have weighed on the state's planned move to ODF.

His predecessor, , and other ITD officials were faulted by a state senate oversight committee for, among other things, not providing an adequate cost-benefit analysis. Meanwhile, Microsoft executives argued that the OpenDocument format favored the open-source business model over Microsoft's closed-source model.

Gutierrez told Massachusetts officials that keeping Microsoft Office on state desktops enables the state to "thread the needle" by adhering to a document standard created and supported by multiple software providers without being opposed to, "anti," any one vendor.

Because Microsoft Office and the forthcoming Office 2007 do not support OpenDocument natively, many expected the state to move to a different productivity suite.

Keeping Office, however, makes the ODF implementation more economical and less disruptive to end users, Gutierrez wrote to state officials. Microsoft started its own OpenDocument format plug-in effort earlier this year by sponsoring an open-source project.

"Technology that did not exist at the time of the policy formulation--namely various plug-in or translator components that can be added to Microsoft Office to allow it to read/write to OpenDocument format (ODF)--is at the heart of our near-term approach," Gutierrez said.