Maintaining the Right to

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2005-12-14 Print this article Print

Access Public Records"> Microsofts format has its proponents, but by no means is Massachusetts swallowing the Open XML story in full. On one hand, Linda Hamel, general counsel for the commonwealths Information Technology Division, applauded Microsofts Open XML move.
However, "In our opinion its not up to the state government [to engage in standards setting]," she said. Nor is it up to governments to define what "openness" is as a matter of law. Rather, Hamel said, the law states that the "best value" be sought.
What that means is up for debate, but it certainly means taking a look at open source, she said, as well as proprietary software, and then making the best choice. One things for sure, Hamel said: Whichever flavor the commonwealth chooses, granting all citizens access to public records is non-negotiable. And when getting access requires paying to put a proprietary application on your desktop, that means there will always be citizens cut off from their right to access. "In the future, when [birth] records are created electronically, and I dont have the software on my desktop, I [wont be able to] read it," she said. She brandished a copy of her birth certificate. "I have the right, your citizens, the Boston Globe, [we all have] a right to look at these documents," she said. "The future problem is if this e-birth certificate is created in [a proprietary electronic format], and somebody is trying to look up when Jonathan [Smith] was born, and is trying to open it, they wont [be able to], because that software might not still be in use. If its created in an open format, people 100, 300 years from now, will be able to … open it and take it out of the paper bag." She held a brown paper bag, the days emblem of proprietary technology, above her head. "If you use proprietary formats, you get the paper bag," she said. What if Microsoft supported ODF? Charlson was asked. Would that solve the problem facing the disabled community? "Only if … [the solution] the office is using is much less expensive and the more expensive one that the blind person is using is the only way of accessing [the technology]," he said. What that means, Charlson told Ziff Davis Internet News, is that the more expensive the new technology, the greater the risk to the jobs and the potential for job advancement in the disabled population. As it is, he said, he has seen the blind stuck in old offices because they had to use old technology, while their coworkers moved to new quarters and new technology in the move from DOS to Windows. He has talked to visually disabled people who have kept their disability hidden from employers due to an unwillingness to be stigmatized. "I dont want anyone with a disability to be afraid to acknowledge that they have a disability and be put in back [when it comes to handing out plum] assignments," Charlson said. "This [move to OpenDocument] cant be one more burden for those people to bear as state employees." The Massachusetts governor calls for more IT innovation. Read more here. Microsofts embrace of OpenDocument could radically change the scenario. Does Microsoft have a plan to support ODF in office products, and if not, why not, Yates was asked by an audience member. Yates promised nothing. "Microsoft does not have any religious objections against ODF whatsoever," he said. "Its simply that Microsoft is very, very focused on shipping what we have promised as far as our next version of Office and the Open XML format, and the advantage is we expect a rich variety of third-party developers to develop filters, converters … a variety of software that will make" the software available to the disabled, he said. In the end analysis, an outsider might not have been able to note any progress in the debate. Microsoft wouldnt commit to supporting ODF, and Massachusetts views proprietary software with suspicion. But at least, Charlson whispered to a reporter bending low to hear him, accessibility is no longer a well-have-it-someday scenario. The progress made by the forum was this: the conclusion that accessibility is non-negotiable. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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