Massachusetts vs. Microsoft?

Opinion: The plan to move toward "open" formats isn't foolhardy if Massachusetts thinks it can better serve taxpayers by escaping proprietary lock.

Weve had two opportunities this week to hear from eWEEK.coms David Coursey on why its a bad idea for Massachusetts to opt to use only "open" document formats by 2007. Coursey has gone so far as to suggest that only an ideologue or a fool would attempt to stand up to Microsoft in this way.

I disagree. Massachusetts, along with most other governments, corporations and individuals in this country and around the world, has dug itself into a hole by tying up so much of its data in a format that can be properly accessed only by the products of a single supplier.

Theres no reason any organization should allow itself to be cornered into such a situation, at least without making an effort to maneuver its way out.

Rather than shrug his shoulders and keep digging, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn is simply looking out for the best interests of his state by planning a way out of this hole. Other organizations would do well to join the Bay State in pursuing open formats for their own use, as well.

Open Enough?

When Massachusetts talks about open document formats, its talking about formats for which the specifications are available and broadly adoptable. Microsofts DOC format, the current de facto standard for text documents, definitely fails the openness test.

The specifications for Microsofts DOC format are closed, so if youre building a potential Word rival thats supposed to consume and create DOC files, youve got an undocumented binary black box for a target. As a result, only Microsoft products can offer 100 percent compatibility, which is a deal-breaker for organizations that wish to migrate to another word processor without changing to a new format.

Microsofts NextGen word processor format, an XML-based version of DOC, is open by nature (its made out of plain-text XML files), but its licensed in a way thats incompatible with many open-source projects.

The formats that Massachusetts has blessed as acceptably open—Adobes PDF and 2.0s OpenDocument format (ODT), despite differences in their licensing—are both well-documented and amenable to use by a wide variety of developers, including open-source projects.

In order to keep the states business, Microsoft would have to begin supporting the ODT file format of its chief competition, The format addition would be trivial for Microsoft to accomplish: Word 2003 already can consume XML, and Microsofts XML-based DOC format is structurally similar to ODT—its a group of plain text XML files zipped together into a single file.

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Alternatively, Microsoft could make its own document formats open enough so that its competitors could build full support for them into their own products. In the case of Microsofts new XML-based format, that would mean making the licensing adjustments or clarifications needed to assure developers that its new formats are as unencumbered as the OpenDocument format.

Microsoft Office represents a large chunk of Microsofts overall profits, and if and the many other upstart office suites could handle Offices file formats as well as Office could, Microsofts pricey suite would have to compete on its merits alone.

However, I believe that many organizations would continue to buy and use Office even if Microsoft were to take the path that Adobe took long ago when it released a complete specification for PDF.

Take care of business

I dont blame Microsoft for doing what it believes is best for its business—but lets not blame Massachusetts policy makers for doing what they believe is best for their state, either.

Is the states move toward open formats an opening gambit in a move away from MS Office to a free alternative, or even a move away from Windows all together? It may be, but lets not forget, the states government is an organization thats funded by tax dollars.

If theres a cheaper way to outfit state workers and schools with the software and the operating environments they require, Massachusetts and other states should at least put themselves into a position where they have the option of making that move.

For now, though, Massachusetts has chosen to shift its default file formats to those for which any developer or firm has an equal chance of building an equally good application to create and consume these documents, thereby ensuring choice and flexibility for itself and for its residents. Wheres the controversy or zealotry here?

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at>

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