Mass. Gives Open XML the Official Green Light

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-08-01

Mass. Gives Open XML the Official Green Light

The commonwealth of Massachusetts has officially thrown its weight behind Microsofts Office Open XML format along with the OASIS Open Document Format.

In July, the commonwealth added Microsofts format, also known as Ecma-376 or Open XML, to the list of approved standards in a draft of the Massachusetts ETRM (Enterprise Technical Reference Model), an architectural framework used to identify the standards, specifications and technologies that support Massachusetts computing environment.

Massachusetts reviews and updates the manual every six months.

The final version of the fourth update to the ETRM was released Aug. 1.

"We believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards. Therefore, we will be moving forward to include both ODF and Open XML as acceptable document formats," Henry Dormitzer, undersecretary of administration and finance, and Bethann Pepoli, acting CIO, said in a statement issued Aug.1, in Boston.

Click here to read more about why Massachusetts embraced Microsofts Open XML document format.

Comments were accepted on that draft of the ETRM v4.0 until July 20. Some 460 individuals and organizations submitted comments on the public review draft, most of which focused on the inclusion of Ecma-376 Office Open XML as an acceptable document format for office applications along with ODF.

The complete list of comments can be viewed here.

"The Commonwealth continues on its path toward open, XML-based document formats without reflecting a vendor or commercial bias in ETRM v4.0. Many of the comments we received identify concerns regarding the Open XML specification. We believe that these concerns, as with those regarding ODF, are appropriately handled through the standards-setting process, and we expect both standards to evolve and improve," the statement said.

Massachusetts was also the first state to adopt a policy encouraging open, XML-based document formats, the statement said, noting that the commonwealth had set the stage for a new and innovative way to ensure that state government operated efficiently and effectively for its citizens.

"The ETRM articulates a vision of a service-oriented architecture where information can be shared, reused and repurposed based on XML technologies. Document formats play a part in this vision by serving as containers for the information rather than being the end goal. The availability of open, standardized XML document formats without vendor bias will move us further along in realizing this vision. The ETRM will continue its evolution, and we will continue to monitor developments as standards are revised and new standards are ratified," the statement said.

Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., welcomed the move, saying that the decision to add Ecma Office Open XML File Formats to the list of approved open standards was a positive development for government IT users in Massachusetts.

To read about why Microsoft accused IBM of limiting choice for interoperability and standards, click here.

"They now have the freedom to choose whichever format best serves their needs. The commonwealths decision also reflects the fact that formats will evolve over time and that approved standards lists should also evolve," Robertson said.

Next Page: A standards policy in progress.

A Standards Policy in


But Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, in Washington, said that the Massachusetts open format policy could still be improved.

"The one real limitation to the policy is the rigid definition of open standard used in the ETRM. The policy limits the commonwealths choices to open standards, when the goals could be achieved with merely open formats," he said.

While small firms are willing to open up their formats and technologies, they often do not have the political clout to move their formats through an open standards body the way IBM, Sun and Microsoft have done, he said, noting that even open-source formats like the Ogg Vorbis media format would be locked out.

"Yet, these small firms and open-source technologies may better meet the needs of the commonwealth and individual agencies. In addition, by committing only to broad open standards approved by international committees, the needs of smaller user groups can be overlooked. As the ETRM acknowledges, there are currently no office applications with native ODF support that provide accessibility for persons who use assistive technology devices," Zuck said.

In August 2006, Massachusetts reaffirmed its commitment to begin using the ODF by Jan. 1, 2007. Click here to read more.

While the new administration clearly realizes "the problems inherent in this kind of policy," ACT was hopeful that the policy would continue to evolve over the coming months toward a "truly goals-based policy that gives the commonwealths CIOs the flexibility they need," Zuck said.

The acceptance of Open XML alongside ODF by Massachusetts appears to bring to an end the controversy that has swirled since the commonwealth first announced publicly that it planned to adopt the ODF.

Peter Quinn, CIO of the IT Division, who championed that move, resigned in January 2006 due to personal attacks based in part on his support for ODF.

His replacement, Louis Gutierrez, then resigned in October 2006, which was widely seen as a blow to open standards. According to Gutierrez, he stepped down due to skirmishes with an uncooperative legislative branch that refused to fund IT investment.

However, Massachusetts support for Open XML was not a surprise to Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove and editor of the standards blog.

"Most attention has focused this year on the unsuccessful attempts that have been made to pass open format legislation in five states. But, behind the scenes, Microsoft has continued to apply unrelenting pressure on the ITD [Massachusetts IT Division.] And, arguably, Open XML now meets the test originally employed by the ITD in 2005 to accept ODF and PDF but not Open XML," Updegrove said in a recent blog post.

Updegrove argued that, in a larger sense, deciding the issue of whether to include Open XML or not involves weighing subjective details such as whether standards body Ecma International is as "open" as OASIS, and whether Open XML, with just a single implementation, Office, should be granted the same status as ODF, which currently has about 30 adopters.

Both Open XML and ODF have hit roadblocks. Read more here.

"Should governments, and especially their unelected IT divisions, implement social policy through procurement? These are difficult distinctions for civil servants like CTOs to make and defend," Updegrove said.

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