Political Animal: Massachusetts IT Office on the OpenDoc Defensive

A senate committee debates the practices of the Massachusetts IT office on its required move in 2007 of using software in the OpenDocument Format. Microsoft's influence on the debate is put to task by the CIO's office.

The proposal to standardize on the OpenDocument Format for all state offices in Massachusetts came under scrutiny Monday, when a special committee session was called to discuss the decision.

State Senator Marc Pacheco, a Democrat, scheduled a hearing before the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, after expressing concern about whether the proposal violates state policies surrounding IT procurement.

The meeting is an indication that the wrangle over Massachusetts transition to OpenDocument is far from over.

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn said in September that starting on Jan. 1, 2007, all electronic documents created by state employees could be saved in only two format types: OpenDocument, which is used in open-source applications such as OpenOffice.org, and the Adobe-created PDF (Portable Document Format).

OpenDocument can be used for saving documents such as letters, spreadsheets, tables, and graphical presentations. Microsoft does not support the OpenDoc format type and has no plans to do so in the foreseeable future, company officials have said. Instead, the company will make its own "Office Open XML format" the default with Office 12, which is due next year.

Since Quinn went public with his intentions, a number of Microsoft competitors have rallied around OpenDoc, announcing plans to support the format with their own products. Sun, KDE and OpenOffice.org already support OpenDoc; Corel and Novell recently announced their intentions to do so.

In the committee meeting, Pacheco acknowledged that the advisory board doesnt have the power to oversee the states Information Technology Divisions decisions, but did ask for more of a collaborative process that involved other parts of the government.

In contrast, the states Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote noted that he believes the ITD was wrong in stating that it is acting in accordance with the law, according to Andrew Updegrove, co-founder of Boston-based technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP, an expert on standards and open source.

"More than anything, this is a turf battle between different factions within Massachusetts, and Pacheco is going to make sure Quinn isnt going to get away with it if he can help it," Updegrove wrote in his blog while attending the meeting.

Quinn is considered by many to be a champion of open source. In his opening statement at the hearing—as recorded by blogger Dan Bricklin— Quinn said he wanted to address misunderstandings.

"[Massachusetts has] a hodgepodge of different and incompatible technologies," he stated. "Resulting in information silos."

He pointed out that many local, state and national governments are reviewing ODF, because some XML formats are proprietary.

"By adoption of a service oriented architecture focused on open standard technologies, the Commonwealth could be transformed from an IT tower of Babel to an IT United Nations," Quinn stated.

A notable part of the discussion came when Linda Hamel, the ITDs general counsel, was asked why she thought the Citizens Against Government Waste have taken a position against the decision, and called it anti-competitive.

"I think that with the exception of the disability organizations, almost all of the organizations that have come out against ODF have been funded by Microsoft," she stated.

When pressed to clarify whether the organizations are subsidiaries of Microsoft, Hamel said, "I am saying that they have been influenced."

Many in the open source community also believe that Microsoft is acting "behind the scenes," noted Pamela Jones, who runs Groklaw, a watchdog site focusing on law and open source.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Massachusetts OpenDocument debate.

"I dont find this debate surprising, considering that Microsoft is involved," she said. "I also think its something new, and new things upset people."

The ITD has yet to issue a statement about how it will act after the committee discussion, but likely to happen is a review by the states Auditors Office, which would involve the ITD in a cost benefit analysis of an ODF transition.

Also in progress is action by Governor Mitt Romneys office, which is collecting opinions on the proposal, and has noted that it will continue a public review before issuing any suggested changes to the plan.

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