Massachusetts Grapples with Open Sources Cost to the Disabled

A Massachusetts panel debates the merits of the OpenDocument format against Microsoft's Open XML: at stake, the issue of accessibility.

BOSTON—The blind man in the red shirt stood up.

A German Shepherd in a leather harness dozed at his feet, under the folding plastic chairs, in the warmth of winter sun coming in low through the windows at the Massachusetts State House.

Brian Charlson pulled at the PDA around his neck. Housed in a leather pouch, it was about as big as an IBM ThinkPad X31.

"It took me six years to raise the money" to buy this, he told attendees at Wednesdays Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Data Formats for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "It cost me $6,000."

This is the conundrum summed up in the questions posed by Charlson, vice president of computer training for the Carroll Center for the Blind.

The commonwealth can in all likelihood figure out a standard of accessibility for the disabled, whether that standard is encapsulated in the open-source OpenDocument format or whether the door is left open for proprietary formats such as Microsoft Corp.s Open XML Office.

But what support will there be for the infrastructure needed to train the individuals who will have to learn wholly new technology—technology that, like Charlsons $6,000 necklace, is, to say the least, intimidating in its high cost?

"When we heard about the OpenDoc format, due Jan. 1, 2007, well, you folks are all used to bloggers," said Myra Berloff, director of Massachusetts Office on Disability. "Well, Im not. And I was blogged to death in my e-mail. Had all the leaders in the disability community giving me a crash course in open source and OpenDoc format and that it wasnt going to be accessible to them.

"For those of us who dont use accessible features we dont think of the fact that we run around pointing and clicking and listening to our computers. If you cant do that, you are shutting down access to a world of people who can no longer do that."

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about Microsofts new cross-platform accessibility model.

The stakes are high. While the disabled of the state bear no grudges against open source, no job loss can be considered small within a population that already faces stiff unemployment rates, Charlson said.

"The blindness community wants to make sure its not against ODF [OpenDocument format]," he said. "Were against implementation without a guarantee that we wont lose the [few] jobs we have. We have a 77 percent unemployment rate. The thought that well lose any of that … frightens us."

The commonwealth in September finalized a proposal that calls for all electronic documents created by Executive Department agencies after Jan. 1, 2007 to use only those formats that are deemed open, including OpenDocument and Adobe Systems Inc.s PDF.

The proposal has not yet been adopted, but its possible adoption has sparked a fracas over issues of access for the disabled, healthy competition and stifled innovation.

For the disabled, the question is whether OpenDocument can match the accessibility options of Microsoft products, which have a plethora of third-party add-ons that benefit this group.

The stakes are high for Microsoft, as well, as it wages a global battle to keep proprietary products before governments that are pondering open source. The company in particular is on a mission to convince teetering governmental bodies to keep the door open to its Open XML Office format.

Here on Wednesday, panel members from IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems Inc., the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Accessibility Initiative and the Secretary of States office held forth on the virtues of open formats in a forum hosted by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and the Science and Technology Caucus.

/zimages/1/28571.gifSome consider Microsofts Open XML push a ploy to counter moves toward OpenDocument and open source by governments throughout the world. Click here to read more.

True to form, Microsoft extolled Open XML Office format as a viable, "open" alternative to OpenDocument.

"Proprietary can be open," said Alan Yates, general manager of Business Strategy for Microsofts Information Worker Group. "[Proprietary software] relies on the magic of services, gluing disparate parts together through services. … Government should be open to both. … By enabling more choice, more competition like this, we feel you avoid creating problems like additional cost, convergence problems, one product doesnt have the accessibility features of another …

"I would balance the notion of absolute competition, of choice, over being able to choose technology that gives them value for their money. Massachusetts is opening up to more choice and more competition than the current policy has. Thats the fundamental choice before us: Can Massachusetts open up to more choice, to additional standards, to enable additional value over time?"

By doing that, Yates said, governments avoid industry warfare that "tends to jerk governments around." They also avoid "sitting at a craps table and trying to choose technology and hoping its the right one," he added.

Politicians shouldnt be choosing technology, CIOs should be, Yates said, lest policy be used to establish political agendas.

"The [Brazilian] public sector CIO [came to me last week and] said Gosh, Im forced to use these products for public policy reasons. I tried to go back to my original products and things are much more efficient, cost effective, etc. etc."

Yates touted the positive reception of Microsofts submission of Open XML to Ecma International, a standards organization, which the company announced last month.

Yates said, "[Were intending] to make [the standard] utterly, perpetually open by any measure of openness. … When we started on the path a few years ago we felt there was a unique opportunity, finally, after years and years of applications being small black boxes that you couldnt open; all of a sudden XML technology has enabled us to make documents and information in documents transparent. Instead of having documents on the desktop and information system that cant speak together, all of a sudden ... there is XML to bridge that gap."

Next Page: Maintaining the right to access public records.