Mass. Embraces MS' Open XML Document Format

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 07-02-2007
The commonwealth of Massachusetts has done a 180 degree turn and decided to support Microsoft's Office Open XML format in addition to the OASIS Open Document Format.

The commonwealth added Microsoft's format, also known as Ecma-376 or Open XML, to the list of approved standards in the Massachusetts' ETRM (Enterprise Technical Reference Model), an architectural framework used to identify the standards, specifications and technologies that support Massachusett's computing environment. The commonwealth reviews and updates the manual every six months.

The fourth and latest version of the ETRM was released on July 2 by Bethann Pepoli, acting CIO of Massachusetts' Information Technology Division, for review and comment until July 20. The full review draft can be found here.

The addition is significant given that Massachusetts was the first state to say publicly that it planned to adopt the ODF (Open Document Format), an alternative to Microsoft's Open XML document format.

In August 2006, Massachusetts reaffirmed its commitment to begin using the ODF by Jan. 1, 2007. Click here to read more.

But that decision was controversial. Peter Quinn, CIO of the Information Technology Division, who championed that move, resigned in January 2006 due to personal attacks based in part on his support for ODF.

His replacement, Louis Gutierrez, then resigned in October 2006, a move that was widely seen as a blow to open standards. According to Gutierrez, he stepped down due to skirmishes with an uncooperative legislative branch that refused to fund IT investment.

Massachusetts 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, fully documented, and publicly available.

As a result, all agencies are expected to migrate away from proprietary, binary office document formats to open, XML-based office document formats. Microsoft Office 2003, currently deployed by the majority of agencies, will support the use of ODF document formats through translator software. It will also support the Open XML format through the use of the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack, the report said.

Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., welcomed the move. "We support the commonwealth's proposal to add Ecma Office Open XML File Formats to the list of approved standards, as this will give users the ability to choose the open file format standard that best serves their needs," he said.

To read about why Microsoft accused IBM of limiting choice for interoperability and standards, click here.

Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Computing Technology Industry Association's Washington-based Initiative for Software Choice, which has long lobbied to have both formats recognized, said she was encouraged by the developments in Massachusetts.

"They signal in our minds acceptance of an argument we've long advocated—standards used by governments to improve IT for citizens and agencies should remain technologically neutral and be flexible," she said.

But Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards for IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., had a different take. While he applauded the commonwealth for opening the debate to citizens, he argued that ODF is the better choice.

"Open XML looks backward, while ODF is an international ISO standard, and is forward-looking," he said. "The public understands this, too, as nearly 15,000 people opposing Open XML have signed an online petition circulated by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. We look forward to seeing the public discussion in the commonwealth."

Is open source dying? Click here to read more.

Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove and editor of the ConsortiumInfo.org standards blog, said the development is not a surprise.

"Most attention has focused this year on the unsuccessful attempts that have been made to pass open format legislation in five states. But, behind the scenes, Microsoft has continued to apply unrelenting pressure on the ITD [Massachusetts' Information Technology Division.] And, arguably, Open XML now meets the test originally employed by the ITD in 2005 to accept ODF and PDF but not Open XML," Updegrove said in a blog post.

Updegrove argued that, in a larger sense, deciding the issue of whether to include Open XML or not involves weighing subjective details such as whether standards body Ecma International is as "open" as OASIS, and whether Open XML, with just a single implementation (Office), should be granted the same status as ODF, which currently has something like 30 adopters.

"Should governments, and especially their unelected IT divisions, implement social policy through procurement? These are difficult distinctions for civil servants like CTOs to make and defend," he said.

Jonathan Zuck, president of ACT (Association for Competitive Technology), in Washington, said the move was an important step in the right direction and showed that Massachusetts recognized that there were many formats deserving of consideration, including Rich Text Format, OpenXML, and the newest versions of the ODF and PDF.

Click here to read about the clash between ACT and open-source evangelist Bruce Perens over GPL Version 3.

While Massachusetts had moved beyond strict technology mandates and had now developed a more flexible framework for achieving its goals, the one real limitation to the policy was the ETRM's rigid definition of "open standard," he said.

"The policy limits the commonwealth's choices to 'open standards,' when the goals could be achieved with merely 'open formats.' While small firms are often willing to open up their formats and technologies, they often do not have the political clout to move their formats through an open standards body the way IBM, Sun, and Microsoft have done. Yet these small firm technologies may better meet the needs of the commonwealth and individual agencies," Zuck said. "We can only hope that the policy continues to evolve in the coming months toward a truly goals-based policy that gives the commonwealth's CIOs the flexibility they need."

The technological specifications and standards detailed in the draft discussion document are required to achieve an SOA (service-oriented architecture), and the specifications and standards are required for all new IT investments. According to the report, there will be a period of transition before this target architecture can be fully implemented.

Both Open XML and ODF have hit roadblocks. Read more here.

The commonwealth is transitioning from siloed, application- and agency-centric IT investments to an enterprise approach where applications are designed to be flexible, to take advantage of shared and reusable components, to facilitate the sharing and reuse of data where appropriate, and to make the best use of the technology infrastructure that is available, the report said.

As with most IT decisions, for Massachusetts the issue revolves around cost and return. "The return on investment in IT assets is greatly improved by the ability to reuse information and services based on open standards," the report said.

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