Mass. relaxes open-format mandate

CIO says state policy was never intended to be anti-Microsoft

Massachusetts is apparently loosening a mandate that all agencies replace Microsoft Office software with products that support open formats just as a major international standards body is endorsing the first open format for archiving government records.

Last week, the International Organization for Standardization said it had granted international standard status to the Open Document Format (ODF), a suite of applications based on Extensible Markup Language for text, presentations, spreadsheets and other office documents.

Simultaneously, Massachusetts, the state government that had been leading the shift from proprietary to open formats, relaxed its mandate that all agencies replace Microsoft Office by 2007.

State officials said that if the forthcoming Microsoft Office Open XML Formats meets Massachusetts’ policy criteria, it could be acceptable under the mandate.

Louis Gutierrez, Massachusetts’ new chief information officer, said a compatible Microsoft product or a plug-in allowing Microsoft Office to work with ODF files could be acceptable. The state issued a request for information earlier this month to seek suitable technologies.

“The only fully standardized and open document format currently meeting the policy criteria is ODF, [but] Massachusetts has thousands of users of Microsoft Office,” Gutierrez said. “Acquisition of an ODF plug-in would be one means by which the Executive Department could meet its goal of implementing open document formats with minimal disruption to users.”

His statement is a reversal of the state’s earlier stance, several software industry officials said. Massachusetts had introduced the policy as a means for the state to end its reliance on Microsoft’s proprietary software, they said.

Peter Quinn, the state’s former CIO, resigned in January amid controversy over his proposal for the open document format mandate. Microsoft supporters attacked his move as potentially costly and unwieldy.

The Massachusetts policy’s critics, who said they believe the mandate was designed to exclude the leading proprietary software, applauded Gutierrez’s actions.

“We prefer the marketplace to choose the open-source formats,” said Michael Wendy, a spokesman for the Initiative for Software Choice, a coalition of software companies. “We don’t have anything against open source. Our rub is when you have a government mandate saying, ‘Thou shalt only use open source to meet government procurement needs.’ If these products are truly better, they’re going to win out.”

Last week, Gutierrez said his state’s mandate never excluded proprietary software and was never meant to appear anti-Microsoft.

“The policy was not and is not, despite claims to the contrary, a mandate to pick particular office suites,” he said. “It is a mandate to move to open and standardized document formats, regardless of office suite.”

Microsoft vows ODF interoperability

Microsoft officials said they are pleased with Massachusetts’ new open-mindedness toward the use of open formats for archiving documents.

“Governments and consumers care about interoperability and a fair marketplace,” said Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s director of standards affairs. “It’s then up to technology companies, like Microsoft, to ensure we provide the best technology solutions possible to meet the needs of our customers. In an open and fair environment, the consumer is the clear winner.”

Although the Open Document Format does not function with most Microsoft Office software, he said the company “will support interoperability with ODF and will not oppose its standardization or use by any organization.”

Microsoft is seeking the International Organization for Standardization’s approval for Microsoft Office Open XML Formats.

Ecma International, a technology standards organization, is reviewing the Open XML Formats, Matusow said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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