Fervor over formats cools for now

Massachusetts says yes to at least two nonproprietary document formats

Massachusetts Enterprise Technical Reference Model

A long-running public policy debate about open-document formats entered a new round earlier this month when Massachusetts opted to let state offices use Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format for sharing and archiving public documents.

Although the state’s decision to include OOXML in its portfolio of acceptable formats brings the policy debate to a close in Massachusetts, it creates a new wrinkle for policy debates in other state capitals and the federal government, some observers say. 

Massachusetts officials ignited a controversy in the standards community in 2005 when they adopted the open-source community’s OpenDocument Format (ODF). But with the release of an updated technical policy document this month, state employees can now use a format other than ODF for official documents.

Microsoft executives interpreted Massachusetts’ 2005 decision favoring ODF as a move to lock out the company and its ubiquitous word processing software. ODF advocates scorned Microsoft’s subsequent lobbying as a campaign to retain its dominance of the office software market.

Bethann Pepoli, Massachusetts’ acting chief information officer, said the state expanded its technical document to include OOXML because officials wanted to accelerate statewide adoption of Extensible Markup Language.

“There is industry support for OOXML, and we believe that by adopting the standard we will be able to accelerate the pace of migration to XML document formats,” Pepoli said.

According to the technical document, all Massachusetts agencies are expected to move from proprietary, binary office-document formats to open, XML-based formats.

“The commonwealth defines open formats as specifications for data file formats that are based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community, affirmed and maintained by a standards body, and…fully documented and publicly available,” the document states.

The federal government could be next to focus on policies related to open-document formats, according to some experts who say most agencies have barely begun to explore the formats.

“Federal agencies have not acted as rapidly and forthrightly as they should be doing to address” the adoption of open formats, said Owen Ambur, former chairman of the CIO Council’s XML Working Group. He retired earlier this year.

Ambur said federal agencies have not formed a community of practice centered on open-document standards. They have done even less to adopt OOXML, he said. That could change, however, because Microsoft Office products are compatible with OOXML, and the company released plug-ins for ODF for Office users in the past year.

Governments need a coordinated effort to adopt open-document standards, Ambur added.

Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, said she applauded Massachusetts’ latest decision. Consumers should not be limited to one choice of technology, she said. “What you’re going for is interoperability among document formats,” she added.
States keep document format options openMassachusetts isn’t the only state that decided not to adopt OpenDocument Format (ODF) as its only standard for sharing and archiving public documents.

Legislatures in California, Connecticut, Oregon and Texas also failed to pass bills that would have mandated that agencies make ODF the only standard for official documents. Many of those bills died in committee before the states’ legislative sessions ended for the year.

In addition, New York and Minnesota are considering legislation to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of adopting ODF as their sole standard.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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