My recent column on the State of Massachusetts plan to require all documents to be stored in an "open" format has drawn considerable comment from readers.
It was a difficult column to write because there are so many factors at play and I am happy to expand upon it in response to the questions Ive received.
First, its not clear what Peter Quinn, the states CIO, is trying to accomplish.
I am not sure what the real problem is with using Microsoft file formats. No, they are not open, but they arent completely closed, either.
There are a number of non-Microsoft apps that support them. That makes Microsoft file formats "open enough" for many users.
Now, suppose Massachusetts moves to an "open" format that Microsoft doesnt support. Considering that the vast majority of people already use Microsoft formats, rather than providing them better access to information, the move to an open format could make access more difficult.
In other words: Is an open format with limited application support any better than a closed format with wide application and free reader support?
Using Microsoft formats also ensures compatibility with new Microsoft technologies that rely on those formats.
The OpenDocument format, used by OpenOffice, is one of two considered "open" under the Massachusetts plan. But, OpenDocument is not widely supported and if Microsoft doesnt support it, most users will never see it.
OpenOffice is a fine suite, but even as a free program it hasnt caught on. Most users I know would continue using Microsoft Office, given the choice.
My gut is that Massachusetts CIO Quinn wants to take that choice away from them.
I suspect Mr. Quinn wants to move the state from Microsoft Office and Windows to Linux and OpenOffice, but isnt ready to fight that battle.
Instead, hes created the 2007 requirement for an open storage format to create an excuse for removing Microsoft Office from state workers desktops.
After Office is gone, many of these users would have no reason to keep Microsoft Windows on their machines.
It might be a bloody transition, but in the end the state could potentially save a lot of money. It seems, however, that if Microsoft adds OpenDocument support to Office then Mr. Quinn would be satisfied.
But, I believe Microsoft should go farther and actually open up its formats to public inspection and easy adoption by other apps developers.
I am not saying outsiders should participate in the development of Microsoft file formats. But, Microsoft should encourage their adoption as industry standards, available to anyone who cares to use them.
This discussion presumes that Massachusetts wants open formats for document exchange, not just archiving.
If the goal is merely to make stored documents more accessible, Abodes PDF format makes more sense than anything Microsoft offers.
Since Mr. Quinn accepts PDF as his second approved format, perhaps Massachusetts should just invest in a document management system built around PDF and call it a day.
Users would continue with whatever theyve been using and the resulting documents would be converted to PDF for public consumption.
I appreciate Mr. Quinns desire to make government information more available to citizens.
I also like open formats, but I am not an ideologue. I encourage Microsoft to meet Massachusetts demand by opening its own formats or, alternately, teaching Office to read and write the OpenDocument format.
If Mr. Quinns ultimate goal is to dislodge Microsoft from his states offices, the decision should be based on more than file formats.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.