TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Massachusetts Fights Microsoft on Document Format

Massachusetts Fights Microsoft on Document Format

Mark Jewell (
Sat, 5 Nov 2005 15:10:38 -0600

By MARK JEWELL, AP Business Writer

The Revolutionary War started in Massachusetts, and now the state is
firing some opening rounds in a revolt against Microsoft Corp. that
seeks an open, proprietary-free format for storing electronic

Gov. Mitt Romney's administration has directed state government's
executive offices to begin storing new records by Jan. 1, 2007, in a
format that challenges Microsoft's market-dominating Office software,
which isn't yet designed to support the new standard.

Massachusetts is the first state to take the step, but others are
closely watching a fight drawing comparisons to the battles at
Lexington and Concord that opened the Revolution.

"It may be the technological equivalent to the shot heard 'round the
world," said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst. "If Massachusetts
follows through with this plan, it will be a radical departure from
how Microsoft and other businesses work with state governments."

Massachusetts' shift to the so-called OpenDocument format seeks to
ensure the state's electronic records can easily be read, exchanged
and modified now and in the future, free of licensing restrictions and
compatibility problems as software evolves.

Microsoft and other critics of the change have warned in public
hearings that the state is narrowing its options by banking on an
untested format that may not work with many of the state's
Office-based computer systems.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company also argues the switch will hurt
citizens and businesses using Office who may find state records don't
translate well when they read them with their software.

Among the programs that do fully work with the OpenDocument format are
Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice and free products such as

Microsoft is trying to stem the rebellion's spread to other state
governments and the private sector. Businesses sometimes follow the
lead of government database managers, and software vendors try to
tailor their products to government clients' preferred format.

"There is a lot at stake for Microsoft," said David Smith, a Gartner
Inc. analyst. "If this were to become a tremendously successful
initiative, it could perhaps open the floodgates to other governments
and business enterprises doing the same thing."

Similar proposals in Oregon and Texas have been shot down. But
officials in several other states including Rhode Island and Wisconsin
continue to express interest in moving to the new data standard, said
Jack Gallt, assistant director of the National Association of State
Chief Information Officers.

Peter Quinn, Massachusetts' chief information officer, testified at a
recent legislative hearing that the switch to OpenDocument aims to
transform the state from an information technology "Tower of Babel to
an IT United Nations."

The move will affect about 50,000 desktop PCs used by state
government, many now equipped with Office software.

Quinn has said computer systems using Office will be retained and not
dismantled unless a cost-effective way is found to replace
them. Agencies using Office software can continue doing so, as long as
they begin saving documents in OpenDocument format.

The switch involves only agencies within the executive branch, and
doesn't apply to courts, the Legislature, and constitutional
offices. It also doesn't apply to the state's Microsoft-based e-mail

Massachusetts isn't alone in its campaign. The European Union and U.S.
Library of Congress have in principle embraced OpenDocument as their
preferred format.

Several foreign governments also have endorsed the broader movement
toward open-source software and the Linux operating system, which uses
publicly available software code that can be customized.

Because such software does not carry licensing fees, proponents cite
cost savings and say open source is less of a target for
hackers. Critics say the savings can disappear in the long run when
service costs are factored in, along with compatibility problems
pairing Microsoft systems with other products.

Microsoft uses proprietary code for most of its products, protecting
them with copyright and patent licenses restricting other developers'
ability to write programs that support Microsoft software.

The OpenDocument format was created by the Organization for the
Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a nonprofit,
international consortium that sets data standards. Its membership
includes Microsoft rivals such as Sun and SAP AG.

Microsoft said in June that Office 12, the next-generation version due
next year, would use a different format that would make it easier for
outside programs to read documents created in Word, Excel and
PowerPoint. Microsoft is adopting a standard called XML that lets data
be shared across different systems with a uniform appearance.

But critics say that switch will still leave some code off-limits and
fall far short of the OpenDocument format's minimal restrictions on
developers who write supporting applications. Microsoft has said it
may rely on "filters" to convert documents from one standard to
another rather than building that capability within Office 12.

Microsoft hopes Massachusetts legislators will slow or halt the Romney
administration's directive. Some legislators and other state officials
question the cost and legality, and cite objections from visually impaired
people who find Office software easier to use than rival products.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democratic committee chairman who ordered the
legislative hearing, said he wants Quinn's office "to stop and to
collaborate with the necessary agencies before moving ahead with this

Alan Yates, a Microsoft general manager, said the company was "encouraged by
the additional review that the Legislature is pursuing to better understand
the costs and issues associated with the existing Massachusetts policy."

Romney spokesman Felix Browne said it was too early to say whether the plans
to switch to OpenDocument might be altered.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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