Putting open-source software to the test

Massachusetts shifts its software to open standards

Massachusetts is leading the charge away from proprietary applications to open-source formats for text documents, spreadsheets, charts and presentations, experts say. Although they predict other governments and public-sector groups will follow, that doesn't mean Microsoft products will disappear any time soon.

"It'll be a very slow trend," said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at Illuminata, a New Hampshire-based research firm. Microsoft Office products have been the de facto standard for two decades, Eunice said. Even if the OpenDocument format was 10 times better than Word, most organizations would still be slow to adopt it, he said.

Massachusetts officials recently deployed a new Enterprise Technical Reference Model because they said it will save money, spur competition, reuse open-source code and provide greater document interoperability. The model includes the new OpenDocument format, which they expect to implement by Jan. 1, 2007.

The state has set an example in terms of features, performance and user interface for new open-source products, said Robert Sutor, vice president of standards and open source at IBM, which supports greater use of open-source standards and open-source software.

"You're not going to lock me in by having a data format where you dictate which other people can or cannot potentially manipulate my data," he said. "So would this be of interest to other governments? Why wouldn't it be?"

Microsoft officials said they support open standards and open source but are disappointed that the state accepted Adobe Systems' PDF product for office applications, yet rejected Microsoft's OpenOffice XML, a perpetual, royalty-free open format that more than satisfies the government's requirements, they said.

Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's information worker business strategy, said 300,000 developers worldwide work with OpenOffice, but the state wants Microsoft to support a standard tuned to another product.

"It's the equivalent of asking McDonald's to build a Burger King product," said Stuart McKee, Microsoft's national technology officer.

Yates said they want to continue discussions with Massachusetts officials. But a major drawback, he added, is that the Microsoft product would limit agencies' options.

Microsoft's Extensible Markup Language product works well, Eunice said, but it's still within a vendor-controlled environment.

"The mega trend in our industry has been a shift from the single vendor, single source to more heterogeneous, more interoperable, more commoditized components," he said. "That's true in systems. That's true in networks. That's true in database technology. I think it's finally becoming true here in document handing."

Retrieving and exchanging documents is a major issue not for only governments but also for the health care and education sectors, Sutor said. Without interoperability, health care providers might not be able to access a patient's electronic health records, he said.

"From the perspective of the information of who can use it and should use it, there is just no good reason not to use an open standard," he said.

Joyce Plotkin, president of the Mass Technology Leadership Council, said the Boston-based industry association doesn't have a position for or against standards in general or OpenDocument in particular because its board and membership cannot agree on those issues.

"The only position that we have on the open standards issue is as it relates to procurements," Plotkin said. "And in a procurement setting, our organizational position is that we would like to see a level playing field that both proprietary and open source -- and actually the third category of mixed solutions -- all have an equal opportunity, and that there is a level playing ground for everybody to compete."

Mixing it up

Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the CIO Council's Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice, said the federal government is moving toward a mix of open and proprietary formats.

"It is a level playing field between open-source and proprietary formats," he said. "It's not one extreme or the other."

Adoption will be piecemeal and slow across the United States because organizations here are used to using proprietary formats, he said. There are a few civilian federal agencies using open-source applications, such as the Labor Department for workforce training software, wiki technology used by the General Services Administration, a Census Bureau e-forms solution and a National Institutes of Health unit using open-source technology within an e-grants portal.

Nonetheless, he said, governments and agencies need to create an environment in which organizational, technical and semantic interoperability exists for open and proprietary formats.

-- Dibya Sarkar

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