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Open Season in Massachusetts

The net effect of the commonwealth of Massachusetts proposal to switch its software to open standards support could be huge for government workers, as well as Microsoft .

The commonwealth is inviting public comment until today on its plan to switch software only to those applications that support the OpenDocument standard for XML-based text, spreadsheets and charts.

The standard was adopted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structure Information Standards (OASIS) in May.

If officials move forward with their existing plan, all government workers will need to use applications conforming to the OpenDocument standard by Jan. 1, 2007. What's more, the application must be able to be configured to save files in OpenDocument format (for example, .odt, .odp, .ods) by default. Adobe's PDF file format will also be accepted for government use.

Until then, agencies will need to develop a migration plan and scuttle any existing plans to buy new software that doesn't support the OASIS standard.

Outside the initial reactions that ranged from cheers from the open standards community to not-so-happy talk from Microsoft headquarters, the decision is much more than just a simple swap of applications.

For technophiles the switch is likely a welcome one. OpenDocument support will give the commonwealth more flexibility with their content through the adoption of an open XML standard for data interoperability, as more and more organizations tap into Web services and service-oriented architecture .

For Massachusetts residents, the benefits are even more agreeable.

"Better data interoperability and management will foster better IT governance, while also improving the quality and accessibility of information and services," notes the recently updated Massachusetts Enterprise Technical Reference Model, version 3.5, the basis for the commonwealth's tech agenda.

But if you're an office worker it means you'll have to switch from the familiar features found in Microsoft Office, WordPerfect and Lotus Notes and learn a new application suite from scratch, since each produce documents in proprietary formats, the Massachusetts documents note.

Systems or network administrators will have to have a deployment plan for the new software, as well as prepare for an increase in tech support calls from end users adjusting to the changes.

The Massachusetts document states the OpenDocument format is supported in applications, such as StarOffice by Sun Microsystems, StarOffice's free counterpart OpenOffice.org, Linux- and Unix-based KOffice and IBM's Workplace.

Officials from the Massachusetts government were not available for comment at press time.

Bob Sutor, IBM vice president for standards and open source, sent an open letter in support of the OpenDocument requirement Wednesday and posted it to his blog. He noted the company appreciates the leadership role the commonwealth is taking, as well as the challenges ahead as they shift to the new application model.

"We think your target date for implementation, 2007, is aggressive but understand the need to set a stake in the ground to begin this important migration to open standards for the documents that you create and maintain," he wrote.

Microsoft is keenly affected by any decision that requires OpenDocument support. The current and upcoming versions of Microsoft Office don't support the OASIS standard and instead use their own formats based on XML.

Alan Yates, Microsoft information worker business strategy general manager, said the Massachusetts proposal in this regard has been inconsistent.

"Our format is published and available to anyone free of charge, is based on open XML standards and has been evaluated by the [European Union] and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have said it meets their needs for openness," he said in an e-mail interview. "Our customers demand accountability, as well as openness, so we must accomplish both, rather than move arbitrarily to every proposed standard."

Microsoft Word allows users the ability to save their documents in a variety of formats, from plain text (.txt) to rich text format (.rtf). However, company officials argue that it won't support OpenDocument because they want to preserve backward-compatibility and that the OASIS standard lacks the XML features found in Word, such as support for video, maps, audio and voice information.

Yates pointed out the company has worked many years on the XML standard within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as well as related projects, like UDDI and SOAP .

"At the same time, we believe that open and royalty-free licensing programs have a role to play alongside formal standards efforts in helping achieve interoperability in practical circumstances," he said.

Stacey Quandt, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, said the heart of the issue is end users who need to use proprietary applications to read documents.

"The challenge facing Microsoft is the commoditization created by open source software as well the growing requirement among [state and federal] governments to guarantee citizens access to documents and that this access will not be encumbered by proprietary file formats," she said in an e-mail interview.