When a public agency announces a plan with a very short comment period—like one or two weeks—you should assume the plan is, as we say in Texas, "on rails" and about as likely to be stopped as a locomotive. And so it is that on Friday, the State of Massachusetts made it official: Effective January 1, 2007, state documents must be saved in approved "open" document formats.
I have commented upon this extensively since state CIO Peter Quinn made the plan public. I am not against open formats and have urged Microsoft and its competitors to provide support for open formats, including the OpenDocument format that Quinn has approved for the states use. (The other approved format is Adobe Acrobat, which is great but not really a good read/write answer).
In choosing OpenDocument, Massachusetts has selected a format that is not supported by a single currently shipping office suite. It is the native format for a release of OpenOffice that is currently in beta. Massachusetts seems to be placing a lot of faith in this open source office suite. I sure hope it ships.
Microsoft, meanwhile, says it doesnt plan to support OpenDocument but believes that if demand exists a third-party will develop conversion software. Microsoft also says its XML implementation is capable of supporting whatever openness Massachusetts requires. At least thats what I think Microsoft told me.
What happens next will largely be determined by what Massachusetts really wants to see happen. It has created an excuse/reason to drive Microsoft Office out of state offices. If thats the goal, Massachusetts is well on the way.
Of course, once Microsoft is gone, nobody but Massachusetts government workers will be able to use the OpenDocument files they create. Even if Massachusetts goes to OpenOffice, the rest of the world will not (at least not anytime soon). Is it really a good idea to require that anyone who wants to read Massachusetts new "open" documents install and learn to use a new office suite, even a free one?
Sure, the OpenDocument files may meet the goal of openness, but will fall down against a goal of "easy to use by the states citizens and businesses."
Why? Because these people already have Microsoft Office or one of the programs that will read and write Office files (like WordPerfect). They can also download free Microsoft Office "reader" programs or they can download a free copy of OpenOffice. Thats more programs that will read/write Microsoft files than the "open" standard Massachusetts has endorsed.
I am not saying Microsofts formats are perfect but they are popular and likely to remain so. OpenDocument is not popular and isnt likely to become an overnight sensation. Tying the state to such a format will, in the short term, create the same access issues that going to an "open" format are supposed to solve.
Though Quinn denies it, my guess is Massachusetts decision is as much about dumping Microsoft as anything else. That may, as I have said previously, be the right thing to do, but if it is why isnt the state willing to say so?
What happens, for example, if a third-party creates an Office plug-in that writes OpenDocument files? Would that keep Microsoft Office on state workers desktops? What if Microsoft provided the plug-in for free?
Many things can and probably will change before the first day of 2007 rolls around, which is good because the Massachusetts plan seems to create more severe problems in the short term that it solves in the long term.
And, by the way, if you think OpenOffice really is the answer, visit George Ous blog over at ZDNet and read about some Microsoft vs. OpenOffice benchmarking hes been doing.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at email@example.com.