States Open Document Dispute Raises Legacy Questions

Opinion: In 100 years, will a version of Microsoft Word exist that will read a Word document created in the year 2005?

When the commonwealth of Massachusetts recently announced its plan to mandate an open document policy for its records, some observers considered the move a gratuitous jab at Microsoft, noting that the state refused to drop its long-running antitrust litigation against the company until a little more than a year ago, long after other plaintiffs had folded.

Questions of a Boston-versus-Redmond vendetta aside, the Bay States decision does call attention to Microsofts open-standards stance and ought to prompt government and corporate users to examine their own needs for document retention and access—and whether their vendors are meeting those needs.

/zimages/3/28571.gifMicrosoft challenges Massachusetts on its open-format plan. Click here to read more.

The Massachusetts proposal mandates all documents must be in fully disclosed and royalty-free formats, such as ODT (OpenDocument Text), which has been ratified as an OASIS standard, or in Adobe PDF.

"We dont want access to history to be encumbered in any way by any vendor," Peter Quinn, a Massachusetts CIO, told the Society for Information Management at its annual SIMposium conference in Boston last week. "We need to preserve records that will endure and be free, but today, we are encumbered by proprietary formats and licenses." Quinn said the state is adopting OASIS formats for all historical documents starting Jan. 1, 2007.

The policy raises some interesting questions, such as, in 100 years, will a version of Microsoft Word exist that will read a Word document created in the year 2005? Or will an ancient version of Word, if that were the only one available, be able to read a document created in a later, but—for whatever reason—unavailable version of Word? For that matter, will XML, ODT and PDF be available in perpetuity?

Its impossible to see far enough into the future to know the answers to these questions. However, the need voiced by Massachusetts can be met fairly easily, in the short term. Microsoft could include ODT extensions in Office, which should satisfy the states requirement. But Microsoft appears unwilling to do so.

"As we look to the future, and all of these data types become increasingly intertwined, locked-in formats like OpenDocument are not well-suited to address these varying data types," Alan Yates, general manager of Microsofts information worker business strategy, told Ziff Davis Medias

We think Yates is being at least a little disingenuous. More likely, Microsofts position is not to support the format because doing so could encourage the spread of non-Microsoft formats and thus weaken the companys grip on its customers office productivity platforms.

Government is trusted with preserving for its citizens the integrity of their public records. Because most, if not all, permanent records will eventually move from that universal data format—paper—to electronic formats, IT bears responsibility now and in the future to preserve access to those records. Consistent with that responsibility, we think Microsoft—and all software vendors—should support accepted and ratified open formats.

We think Massachusetts officials are right to take a stand.

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