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.”
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.
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.”
Maintaining the Right to
Access Public Records”>
Microsofts format has its proponents, but by no means is Massachusetts swallowing the Open XML story in full.
On one hand, Linda Hamel, general counsel for the commonwealths Information Technology Division, applauded Microsofts Open XML move.
However, “In our opinion its not up to the state government [to engage in standards setting],” she said. Nor is it up to governments to define what “openness” is as a matter of law. Rather, Hamel said, the law states that the “best value” be sought.
What that means is up for debate, but it certainly means taking a look at open source, she said, as well as proprietary software, and then making the best choice.
One things for sure, Hamel said: Whichever flavor the commonwealth chooses, granting all citizens access to public records is non-negotiable. And when getting access requires paying to put a proprietary application on your desktop, that means there will always be citizens cut off from their right to access.
“In the future, when [birth] records are created electronically, and I dont have the software on my desktop, I [wont be able to] read it,” she said. She brandished a copy of her birth certificate.
“I have the right, your citizens, the Boston Globe, [we all have] a right to look at these documents,” she said.
“The future problem is if this e-birth certificate is created in [a proprietary electronic format], and somebody is trying to look up when Jonathan [Smith] was born, and is trying to open it, they wont [be able to], because that software might not still be in use. If its created in an open format, people 100, 300 years from now, will be able to … open it and take it out of the paper bag.”
She held a brown paper bag, the days emblem of proprietary technology, above her head. “If you use proprietary formats, you get the paper bag,” she said.
What if Microsoft supported ODF? Charlson was asked. Would that solve the problem facing the disabled community?
“Only if … [the solution] the office is using is much less expensive and the more expensive one that the blind person is using is the only way of accessing [the technology],” he said.
What that means, Charlson told Ziff Davis Internet News, is that the more expensive the new technology, the greater the risk to the jobs and the potential for job advancement in the disabled population.
As it is, he said, he has seen the blind stuck in old offices because they had to use old technology, while their coworkers moved to new quarters and new technology in the move from DOS to Windows. He has talked to visually disabled people who have kept their disability hidden from employers due to an unwillingness to be stigmatized.
“I dont want anyone with a disability to be afraid to acknowledge that they have a disability and be put in back [when it comes to handing out plum] assignments,” Charlson said. “This [move to OpenDocument] cant be one more burden for those people to bear as state employees.”
Microsofts embrace of OpenDocument could radically change the scenario. Does Microsoft have a plan to support ODF in office products, and if not, why not, Yates was asked by an audience member.
Yates promised nothing. “Microsoft does not have any religious objections against ODF whatsoever,” he said. “Its simply that Microsoft is very, very focused on shipping what we have promised as far as our next version of Office and the Open XML format, and the advantage is we expect a rich variety of third-party developers to develop filters, converters … a variety of software that will make” the software available to the disabled, he said.
In the end analysis, an outsider might not have been able to note any progress in the debate. Microsoft wouldnt commit to supporting ODF, and Massachusetts views proprietary software with suspicion.
But at least, Charlson whispered to a reporter bending low to hear him, accessibility is no longer a well-have-it-someday scenario. The progress made by the forum was this: the conclusion that accessibility is non-negotiable.