Opinion: When he tried to tell the people of Massachusetts what file format they should use, the state's CIO was forgetting who works for whom.
My column waving goodbye to Massachusetts state CIO Peter Quinn drove a fair number of people nuts, at least if my inbox is any indication. I can appreciate that people for whom Quinn is a folk hero are a bit touchy about his resignation.
I still find myself wondering: Why did the Massachusetts state CIO believe it was his job to tell the people of Massachusetts what file format they should use?
Why should the state select a format for storing state documents that is different from what a huge majority of its citizens are already using? And which the state itself already uses? Of does that improve access to state information?
Put another way: Is it the responsibility of citizens to change what theyre doing for the convenience of the government? Or should government seek to meet the needs of the largest number of its citizens?
Rather than adopt a single format for the distribution of documents, governments should support multiple formats or at least provide some means of converting from whatever format the state uses to whatever the citizen is using.
Of course, this is all made easier if the government is already using the same format at the overwhelming majority of its constituents.
Still, I am not sure a fully interoperable read/write format is a requirement for public documents. I am satisfied if the finished documents made available to the public are in an open format, such as Adobe PDF.
What formats state agencies use internally is less important, though since the majority of citizens will be using Microsoft formats, state workers should be able to read and write those formats if the state wants to do business with its taxpayers.
Office 12 will write PDF documents, and WordPerfect writes PDF files too. This makes it easy for documents the state needs to share with the public to be saved as PDF for distribution. That seems to solve the access issue for most of the users, most of the time.
However, I dont think document access was what this controversy was all about.
After all, unless Microsoft chooses to support OpenDocument, then a move to that format would make it more difficult for Microsoft Office users to access state documents than it is today.
Click here to read more insight about Quinns resignation from Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.
Since Microsoft isnt likely to directly support ODF, despite my strong suggestion that it should, implementing ODF would immediately do more to limit document access than to improve it.
If your goal is document access, selecting a format that Microsoft chooses not to support wont accomplish your goal.
I understand that isnt how the open-source community wants the world to be, but it is the world as it exists.
Microsoft is here, and as the overwhelming choice of customers, it gets to make certain decisions, file formats being one of them.
If Microsoft documents its formats, doesnt use them for unfair advantage, and allows their free use, I think that makes those formats "open enough" for general use. Is that a perfect solution? No. But, the situation could also be a whole lot worse.
For those who wonder, yes, I know the difference between open source and open format, although I do tend to run them together when I am talking about an open format that is primarily supported by open-source applications.
When I write about "open source," I am generally referring to a religious and political movement, rather than pieces of code or a particular license.
Its a little difficult to write a column where every other word seems to be openas in OpenOffice, OpenDocument Format, open source, open format, open standard, etc., so I am less precise than I sometimes should be. I dont think readers were too confused, however.
In summary, I think it was arrogant for a state department head to think he could force people to use a particular document formatone they dont use and their applications wont supportif they want to interact with their government.
Youd think a top executive of the state best known for a certain Tea Party would have better understood who works for whom.
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One of technology's most recognized bylines, David Coursey is Special Correspondent for eWeek.com, where he writes a daily Blog (blog.ziffdavis.com/coursey) and twice-weekly column. He is also Editor/Publisher of the Technology Insights newsletter and President of DCC, Inc., a professional services and consulting firm.
Former Executive Editor of ZDNet AnchorDesk, Coursey has also been Executive Producer of a number of industry conferences, including DEMO, Showcase, and Digital Living Room. Coursey's columns have been quoted by both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and he has appeared on ABC News Nightline, CNN, CBS News, and other broadcasts as an expert on computing and the Internet. He has also written for InfoWorld, USA Today, PC World, Computerworld, and a number of other publications. His Web site is www.coursey.com.