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Massachusetts to OK Microsoft OpenXML Formats

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been a flash point in the often contentious debate about open standards for digital document formats over the past two or three years – and will continue to be, it seems.

Monday, the state's Information Technology Division (ITD) published its proposal mandating the use of open formats for all public documents, and included Microsoft's  Office Open XML (OOXML) on the list as well as the OpenDocument Format (ODF).

"It means that we will now have two acceptable open document standards [whereas] previously it was just one [ODF]," Bethann Pepoli, acting CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, told internetnews.com.

Though not a surprise, the proposal, which is open to public comment until July 20, is sure to stir more controversy.

Created by Sun Microsystems  and OpenOffice.org, ODF was originally adopted as a standard by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS.

It was later ratified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in May 2006. Perhaps ironically, in May 2007, Microsoft voted to include ODF 1.0 as a standard with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The OOXML formats, on the other hand, were approved as a standard last winter by European standards group Ecma International, which is now working to get them adopted by the ISO in order to give them broader appeal – making them rather a late entry as far as standards go.

Microsoft has made several moves to try to convince critics and customers alike that it is serious about being open with OOXML. Besides submitting the formats to Ecma, the company also released the formats under its Open Specification Promise not to sue developers or to collect royalties for their use.

It also has developed, with the help of some members of the open source community, translators to enable Office documents to be saved and retrieved in ODF formats.

"We support the Commonwealth’s proposal to add Ecma Office Open XML file formats to the list of approved standards, as this would give users the ability to choose the open file format standard that best serves their needs," Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, said in a e-mailed statement.

But some Microsoft competitors and critics, IBM  included, have viewed the debate over OOXML versus ODF as a potentially widening crack in Microsoft's hegemony on the desktop. No surprise then that different parties attempted to put their own spin on Monday's proposal.

"In its draft policy, the Commonwealth has it exactly right, as it describes OOXML as being developed solely to 'ensure the highest levels of fidelity with legacy documents created in proprietary Microsoft Office binary document formats' … We completely agree [that] OOXML looks backward, while ODF is an international ISO standard, and is forward looking," Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, said in a e-mailed statement.

Interpretations aside, however, the proposal is intended to address the facts on the ground that ITD has to deal with.

"[IBM's interpretation] is not necessarily how we view the Office suites themselves," said ITD's Pepoli. "The majority of users use Office because the open suites [such as OpenOffice.org] don't provide for the accessibility needs of the disability community," she added.

Others advocate taking decisions such as document formats out of the hands of career technologists in favor of the legislature.

"It would be more fair to all concerned for this to be done through legislation, both to allow for public debate by elected representatives, as well as to protect non-elected civil servants from being caught in the crosshairs," Andrew Updegrove, principal at technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston, said in a e-mailed statement. He admitted in his statement, however, that recent attempts to pass laws to that effect in several states all went down to defeat.

"The issue of whether to include OOXML or not involves weighing more subjective details, such as … whether it should matter whether a standard with a single implementation (Office) should be granted the same status as another (ODF) with something like 30 adopters today," Updegrove added.

In the short term, however, that doesn't appear to be in the cards. The comment period only runs until July 20 and while it's always possible that a tectonic shift may occur in that time frame, it appears that Massachusetts is on track to legitimize both sets of formats.

"If we need to make changes [based on comments], we will [but] otherwise, by the end of July we'll have a final policy," Pepoli said.

Meanwhile, another Microsoft competitor has signed on to help provide translation capabilities between OOXML and ODF. Linspire announced Monday it is joining efforts with other companies, including Novell and Xandros, "to create bi-directional open source translators for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations between ODF and Open XML." The translators will be provided with the company's Linspire and Freespire Linux-based operating systems.