The Open-Source Martyr Meets His Fate

Opinion: Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn's goal of complete access to state documents is laudable, but he chose the wrong way to go about it, and his recent resignation comes as no surprise.

Well, we dont have Peter Quinn to kick around anymore.

Published reports say the Massachusetts state CIO, best known for his plan to move all state documents to the OpenDocument file format, has resigned as of January 9, 2006, about a year before his edict was to become effective.

Before you shed too many tears for the man, consider that hes likely to fall up, landing a better job, for more money, than what the people of Massachusetts were paying him.

Such is the fate of this open-source martyr, a man whose name has become known industry-wide, even if most people think he was foolish.

All it takes is one vendor or IT shop that needs an open-source poster child for Quinn to land in a bed of roses, minus the thorns.

Two observations:

First, I told you so. I toned down my comments on Quinns likelihood of survival in an earlier column because I dont think its appropriate to predict someones demise, but I never expected Quinn to be around if he persisted with his file format plans.

/zimages/2/28571.gifHow open can Microsofts formats be? Click here to read more.

Second, Quinns goal of unfettered access to state documents is a laudable one and he should be commended for pushing the issue, though he chose the wrong way to do so.

Worse, Microsoft and Adobe formats may already be "open enough" to accomplish the goal. In short, this was a battle that probably didnt need to be fought.

Quinns plan proved unpopular with some state officials; it put Microsoft on the attack, and even brought Mr. Quinn himself under The Boston Globes scrutiny.

One of his former bosses has been quoted as saying Quinn didnt understand how political his policy decision would become and wasnt up to the fight, thus the resignation.

Quinns edict had the effect of saying that unless Microsoft implemented ODF, state workers would find their copies of Microsoft Office replaced by WordPerfect or, more likely, OpenOffice.

While WordPerfect, a company for which Ive done a brief consulting engagement, is a fine product, most users arent clamoring for it. And even fewer for OpenOffice.

Yes, you can make the argument that Microsoft Office is too expensive and should be replaced just for that reason. Mr. Quinn would have been more successful, and probably accomplished the same open format goal, had he made price the issue rather than file formats.

It remains my opinion that because almost everyone uses Microsoft file formats already and the company provides free reader software, those formats are "open enough" to provide access to state documents.

Quinn also accepted Adobe PDF as an open format, which would be my own choice for archival document storage and could have ended the matter. Microsoft will be supporting PDF in Office 12.

Quinns supporters have complained that Microsoft changes formats too often for archival storage in its formats. The counter argument is that OpenDocument is unproven and is itself likely to change over time.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about why David Coursey thinks Massachusetts move to open format is close-minded.

My expectation is that approximately once a decade, it may be necessary to convert files from old formats to current ones, regardless of the format chosen.

Microsoft has taken steps to open the formats it will use for Office 12, although it is not clear what the end result of those efforts will be. Microsoft should still make some accommodation for ODF users, regardless.

I am sorry for the personal pain brought to Mr. Quinn as a result of his well-intentioned, if naïve, actions. My expectation is that his plan will quietly go away and be forgotten, by everyone except other potential open-source martyrs who might see Quinns experience as a cautionary tale.

As they say in the Westerns, its one thing to be right—and something else entirely to be dead right. Any questions? Ask Peter Quinn.

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

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