ISO approves open document format

The major international standards body has endorsed the first nonproprietary technology for archiving government records. At the same time, one state government is hinting that it may soften its mandate to adopt such technologies.

Yesterday, The International Organization for Standardization announced it has granted international standard status to the Open Document Format (ODF), an open, Extensible Markup Language-based suite of applications for text, presentations, spreadsheets and other office documents.

Simultaneously, Massachusetts, the state government that had been leading the shift from proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office, to open-source formats, is apparently easing its mandate that all agencies replace Microsoft Office with open document formats by 2007.

Massachusetts is exploring technologies, such as plug-ins, to ease the transition from Microsoft Office to open document formats. In addition, state officials have said that the forthcoming Microsoft Office Open XML product could be acceptable under the mandate.

Currently, ODF is the only open document format standard on the market.

A request for information issued last week states, “The Commonwealth seeks information pertaining to the existence or development of a plug-in component or other converter options to be used with Microsoft Office that would allow Microsoft Office to easily open, render and save to ODF files, and also allow translation of documents between Microsoft's binary (.doc, .xls, .ppt) or XML formats and ODF.”

Today, Louis Gutierrez, Massachusetts' chief information officer, said if Microsoft Office Open XML meets Massachusetts’ policy criteria in the future, or if there's a plug-in component allowing Microsoft Office to work with ODF documents, that office suite would be an option for the government.

“The only fully standardized and open document format currently meeting the policy criteria is ODF, [but] Massachusetts has thousands of users of Microsoft Office. 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,” he said.

The policy states that all agencies must use standardized open document formats that are available and accepted under Massachusetts' criteria by 2007.

Critics of the Massachusetts policy, who believe the mandate excludes proprietary software providers, are applauding last week’s development.

Michael Wendy, a spokesman for the Initiative for Software Choice, said the RFI indicates that Massachusetts may still permit agencies to procure Microsoft Office Suite and competing applications in 2007.

“Our feeling is that if everything is going swimmingly, why the need for this plug-in? Maybe they are having some second thoughts,” Wendy said. “We prefer the marketplace to choose the open-source formats. 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. And we don’t need a mandate.”

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