Operating Systems

Mass. Open Document Plan May Include Microsoft

Massachusetts officials said the state remains committed to the open document format plan laid out last year as a way of ensuring accessibility to state documents, but now there may be room for Microsoft’s Office suite of products after all.

State technology officials have said that previous plans to all but phase out Microsoft Office products by Jan. 1 have been modified to one in which plug-in software will be used to let users of the Office suite create and save files in the industry-standard OpenDocument Format (ODF).

The move is a partial victory for Microsoft, one that allows it to keep its Office suite in place and avoid the public relations fallout from having it shelved entirely by the government agencies. However, it also emphasizes that the state feels Office documents are still not widely accessible enough.

Among those pushing to keep Office in place were advocates for the disabled, who said that many plug-ins meant to make it easier for those with disabilities, such as partial blindness, to work with computer documents, are only widely available in Office format.

Microsoft’s Open XML has also not yet been added to the list of open file formats approved for use by government agencies in the state. That list includes ODF and the Portable Document Format (PDF) championed by Adobe. Open XML’s ommission from the list is a setback for Microsoft, since the company designed Open XML to answer concerns about compatibility.

Old Plan, New CIO

The modifications to the plan were announced by Chief Information Officer Louis Gutierrez.

In an e-mail message to state agencies and others, he said the new policy seeks to “thread a needle” by searching for an approach that would support open document formats without major disruptions to the day-to-day workflow inside state government.

The shift leaves open the possibility that Microsoft can bring Open XML into compliance with the state’s requirements for approval as an open document format-friendly technology.

Also up in the air are timeframes for shifting to ODF, with some agencies set to make the move by Jan. 1, others to follow by the middle of 2007 and others taking longer. Even those dates, he added, are “not set in stone.”

When it was first announced last year, the Massachusetts policy seemed like it would be a major blow to Microsoft, especially since it came after some major overseas governments, including the national governments of Belgium and Denmark, said they would drop Office in favor of ODF.

Some thought the Bay State’s plan may be shelved entirely when the CIO who drafted it, Peter Quinn, resigned under pressure. Critics had questioned whether Quinn was unduly influenced by open source advocates and brought up his attendance at a number of open source events as evidence that he’d been swayed by lobbyists for that movement.

A Boston newspaper backpedaled from a story on Quinn’s travel to open source events after it was revealed that the CIO paid his own way to them. That type of controversy, however, is one of the reasons Quinn quit his post.

At the time, many thought his departure would derail or at least delay the ODF move. His resignation did not stamp out the controversy, however, with a state senate committee recently releasing a report that said the group Quinn headed — and which had recommended the ODF shift — failed to take into account the expense and disruption of the shift away from Office formats.

High Stakes

Attorney Andy Updegrove of Gesmer Updegrove in Boston said he expected longer delays given the range of issues to be tackled with the transition.

“The way now seems clear to a full rollout of ODF only six months after the original, doubtless overly ambitious target date,” he said, referring to the June 2007 date to have most agencies on the format. “I’m impressed that full implementation will be delayed by such a short period of time, given all that has transpired over the past year.”

Quinn’s abrupt departure and the controversy surrounding the ODF transition has created a “turbulent situation” that the new CIO has handled well, he said, by bringing disability advocates, open format advocates and software vendors, including Microsoft, to the table.

One reason Massachusetts may have remained committed to the ODF switch even after changing CIO’s is political, Red Monk analyst Stephen O’Grady said. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, is actively exploring the possibility of running for president in 2008.

Standing up to big corporations, especially one as disliked by some as Microsoft, is a strong political asset, he noted, adding that Microsoft complicated the equation by agreeing to support ODF in Office 2007. “If the real goal is to support open formats and not to punish Microsoft, this is unfolding in the right way,” he added.

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