Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Massachusetts Mandates Open-Format Documents, Edges Towards Linux

Sep. 01, 2005

The state of Massachusetts will revamp its digital output during the next 16 months to create only open-format documents and is increasing its use of Linux and free and open source software (FOSS) among its workers, the state's chief information officer told Thursday in a conference call.

CIO Peter Quinn challenged Microsoft and other companies who sell software that uses proprietary document formats to consider enabling open-format options as soon as possible. Quinn said that "government is creating history at a rapidly increasing rate, and all documents we save must be accessible to everybody, without having to use 'closed' software to open them now and in the future."

The state said Wednesday that starting on Jan. 1, 2007, all electronic documents created by state employees could be saved in only two format types: OpenDocument, which is used in open source applications such as, and the Adobe-created Portable Document File (PDF). OpenDocument can be used for saving documents such as letters, spreadsheets, tables, and graphical presentations. It is the default file format for OpenOffice 2.0, currently in Beta 2.

Using and Linux "more and more"

Quinn said the state runs a "vast majority" of its office and system computers on Windows and that "only a very small percentage of them run Linux and other open source software at this time. This is in tune with the general market in the US. But we like to 'eat our own cooking,' in that we are using and Linux more and more as time goes along, because it produces open format documents."

In contrast, Microsoft's Office creates Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other documents that are accessible only by Microsoft products, making them ineligible for use, the state said.

"Microsoft has remade the desktop world," Quinn said. "But if you've watched history, there's a slag heap of proprietary companies who have fallen by the wayside because they were stuck in their ways. Just look at the minicomputer business, for example. The world is about open standards and open source. I can't understand why anybody would want to continue making closed-format documents anymore."

Microsoft answer to that is simple. MS Office, which is upgraded about every three years and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, brought in more than $11 billion last year, or about 28 percent of Microsoft's total revenue, according to the company's recently filed annual report.

"We've had an active, ongoing conversation with Microsoft since January about this, and they've been open to hearing our position," Quinn said. "But I don't know one way or the other how they're ultimately going to react to this. Also, this isn't just about Microsoft. We're focusing on the formats here, not necessarily the software. But wouldn't it be nice not to have to remake the systems?"

Quinn said the state is looking at all its options, including using conversion tools to create open documents. "We're cognizant of what happens in a bifurcated world," he said. "If we have to convert everything as we go along, we'll look at the cost [associated] with it and make decisions based on what's best for the taxpayers. We'll also look at other options, like Linux systems, because open source and open standards are where the world is going."

Microsoft's response

Alan Yates, general manager of Information Worker Business Strategy at Microsoft, told "We do not believe ... that the answer to public records management is to force a single, less functional document format on all state agencies.

"The proposed policy is inconsistent with ongoing dialogues Microsoft is having with other Massachusetts state agencies about how Microsoft products can best meet their data and records requirements for a variety of data types -- ranging from traditional documents to pictures, audio, video, voice, voice-over-IP, data, database schema, webpages, and XML information.

"As we look to the future, and all of these data types become increasingly intertwined, locked-in formats like OpenDocument are not well suited to address these varying data types -- as the proposed policy itself acknowledges." Yates said. "We would advise the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to do a thorough evaluation of the costs and benefits before making such a major shift."

Feedback requested from companies and individuals

Quinn said that for the next week, the state is requesting feedback from companies and individuals on the issue of open-format electronic documents. The Enterprise Technical Reference Model v.3.5 draft specification is available for review until Sept. 9.

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