Today, I come to give praise and honor to a group that is fearless in its abilities to choose and deploy cutting-edge technologies. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, state governments!
What's that? State governments, and government agencies in general, don't tend to be generally fearless or forward thinking when it comes to innovative and new technologies? That they tend to deal with layers of bureaucracy and red tape that make even the most conservative business look nimble?
Mmmm. Come to think of it, that's right! Outside of maybe defense and intelligence areas, governments are typically not the place one expects to see groundbreaking uses of new technologies.
But if that's the case, why do open-standards bodies work so hard to woo governments to use their standards?
The latest standards group to put on a full-court press to win the love of state governments is the ODF Alliance, which is pushing governments and states such as Massachusetts to adopt the OpenDocument Format as a standard for public documents.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a panel at the National Conference of State Legislatures where the use of open documents in government was discussed. On the panel were representatives from state governments, along with members of open-source groups, including the ODF Alliance. After the panel, I had the chance to speak to Marino Marcich of the ODF Alliance and Doug Johnson from Sun Microsystems. I asked Marcich why the ODF Alliance was so fully focused on pushing ODF to governments.
His answer was pretty much what I expected, saying that governments are big users of technologies and documents, that they have the ability to mandate specific formats and standards and their choices can have broad impact as the many businesses that work with the government will need to support the standards and formats that the government chooses.
However, while I understand these points of view, I think the ODF Alliance is making a mistake by putting so many of their eggs in the government basket.
First, while academically I understand the potential impact of getting a government to choose a standard or format, anecdotally I can't think of many formats or standards that I use today that owe their popularity to government deployments. If anything, governments tend to be behind the curve, often stuck using older technologies and formats while the rest of the business world moves to the latest and greatest.
But if the ODF Alliance shouldn't be pushing for government adoption, where should their focus be? I think they should be working to make ODF more visible and usable in the applications and tools that people are already using. In fact, there is already an example where this approach is working very well for ODF.
Over the years I've been a heavy user of OpenOffice and StarOffice, even using OpenOffice as my main work office suite for all of 2006. But in that time I can't think of one time that someone sent me a document in ODF.
However, in the last few months I've actually had several documents forwarded to me in ODF. Were they created in OpenOffice or StarOffice or converted from a Microsoft Office document using the ODF plugin?
Nope, they were created in Google Apps. And when I brought this up to Marcich of the ODF Alliance and Doug Johnson from Sun, they told me that since Google Apps went live there has been a large increase in the number of OpenDocument format files found on the Internet.
So it seems that so far one of the biggest growth areas for ODF hasn't been a government adoption, it's been Google Apps adding ODF as a save option.
While I'm not arguing that the ODF Alliance should completely forgo lobbying governments, I do think there needs to be more focus on getting the format into places where people will want to use it willingly.
When you look at most of the ubiquitous formats around today, from .zip to MP3 to JPG, they didn't get to that point because a government chose them; they are what they are because people found them to be easy to create and use.
To me, it seems that rather than dealing with techno-phobic state legislators who don't understand or care about your technology, another form of political action might be more effective. Namely, the grass roots approach. Once the people choose to use a format like ODF, then the governments will follow.
Because when it comes to technology, government isn't fearless, and it usually isn't a leader.