Massachusetts Fights a Losing Battle

 
 
By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-09-06
 
 
 
The decision by the Peoples Republic of Massachusetts to require an "open" format for the storage of state documents is a curious one. It seems to be as much about punishing Microsoft as it is the laudable goal of making information more accessible. Microsoft should accede to the states demand that it open its file formats, not because Massachusetts is demanding it, but because there isnt a good reason not to.

Effective Jan. 1, 2007, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn has designated two acceptable formats for documents created by state workers: The OpenDocument format used by the OpenOffice 2.0 suite and Adobe Acrobats PDF format. As PDF is primarily a read-only format, most day-to-day storage would presumably be in OpenDocument.

Under Quinns order, Microsoft formats, though supported by free readers as well as competitive applications like WordPerfect and OpenOffice are not considered "open" and cannot be used by the states workers after the 2007 deadline.

Some observers see this as a move by the state toward adoption of OpenOffice as the its standard desktop productivity suite, though it also appears that if Microsoft were to add the ability to read/write the OpenDocument format to Microsoft Office that it could remain on state desktops. Microsoft could also, of course, open its existing file formats for use by everyone.

As for the punishment angle, youll remember that the Bay State was among those that along with the federal government sued the software giant; a battle that ended with barely a slap on Microsofts wrist. Massachusetts is also the home, even the birthplace, of the free software movement, which Quinns anti-Microsoft rule would certainly help.

Click here to read David Courseys take on Googles real business adversaries.

For the purpose of this discussion, lets suppose Mr. Quinn can actually enforce the edict hes set forth. I wouldnt take odds on that, but for now Im willing to give the guy benefit of some considerable doubt.

Part of the reason for this is that most businesses, including the state of Massachusetts, already have a set of file formats that work just fine and provide a migration path as technology changes. These are the Microsoft formats, which may not be open but are so widely used that its been many years since Ive run into someone who had trouble opening a Microsoft document.

And if WordPerfect and OpenOffice will also open Microsoft files, you cant say the formats are closed very tightly. Id make the case that Microsoft formats are "open enough" for government work. Or anybody elses. Mr. Quinn, of course, would disagree.

I find it hard to imagine that a set of files written in OpenDocument today will be as easy to open in 20 years as files written in Microsoft data formats. Id be surprised if there were an OpenDocument format in two decades, unless it gains Microsofts support.

To that end, I agree with Mr. Quinn that Microsoft should open its formats and, if possible, add OpenDocument to the formats it supports. Ive previously suggested that Microsoft Office should learn to read and write PDF files, which Mr. Quinn also accepts as being "open."

I am concerned that by requiring OpenDocument that Mr. Quinn may be aligning Massachusetts with what becomes a second-rate file format as Microsoft keeps expanding into XML and metadata and OpenDocument may have trouble keeping up.

It would be a shame to have Windows Vista on your desktop but be unable to use metadata searches because your application and/or file format doesnt support it. That could easily happen if Microsoft doesnt make OpenDocument a first-class format of its own.

I have seen comments that Mr. Quinn is really trying to move Massachusetts toward Linux, OpenOffice and other free software. If thats the case, I wish hed come out and say so, rather than give Microsoft such an easy way to avoid the bullet as adding OpenDocument to its set of file types.

I would find it much easier, in fact, to make the case that Massachusetts should make a complete change in Office suites, from Microsoft to OpenOffice, than to get behind merely requiring an "open" file format.

But, given the likely user opposition—most people actually like Microsoft Office—I can imagine why Mr. Quinn isnt taking on this battle. Perhaps demanding a new file format and hoping Microsoft doesnt respond by adding it, is all Mr. Quinn thought he could accomplish toward a larger goal. If Microsoft doesnt respond, Mr. Quinn could perhaps justify changing the office suite on state desktops. My bet, however, is upset state agencies and users would block such a move and derail both Mr. Quinns plans and career.

Yes, Microsoft should open its file formats, which no longer provide the company with a significant competitive weapon. But if Redmond doesnt step up, Mr. Quinn would be a fool not to back down.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at david_coursey@ziffdavis.com.

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