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Microsoft: one open document standard good, two better

Choice vs interoperability?

Microsoft believes a future with more than one open document standard is preferable to a single standard.

It'll be up to third-party vendors to supply the necessary converters and filters so that users can move between Microsoft's proposed Open XML specification and the OpenDocument standard supported by the likes of IBM and Sun, according to a Microsoft executive.

"Additional standards give you more choice over a period of time," Alan Yates, general manager, business strategy with Microsoft's information worker group, said Wednesday. "Governments should be open to both [Open XML and OpenDocument] and whatever else is rolling down the street. Choosing both is really wise."

Yates was one of the members of a panel debating the future of electronic data formats in Boston Wednesday. The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and the Commonwealth's Science & Technology Caucus convened the panel to provide a forum for IT vendors, state officials and the public to air their views on a Massachusetts policy that continues to generate plenty of controversy.

Back in September, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn finalised a policy for state agencies to develop a gradual plan for migration to Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument, beginning 1 January 2007. The plan would involve phasing out the state's Microsoft Office use. Other US states and countries are keenly watching to see how that proposal is implemented and whether the state and the IT vendors can meet the 1 January, 2007 deadline.

"Massachusetts is the canary in the mine on this issue," John Palfrey, clinical professor of law and executive director of the Berkman Center on Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, said during the debate. "If Massachusetts gets this right, others will follow."

Palfrey proposed moving the debate over document formats to a higher level, not simply pitting IBM, Sun and other vendors against Microsoft. "The tricky point is what does it mean [for a state] to have an open policy?" he asked. In defining such a policy, he suggested four key areas to focus on:

-- ensuring software interoperability;
-- long-term access to and control of applications;
-- choice and low cost of applications;
-- innovation so that other vendors can easily build products on top of the chosen document format.

"You need to avoid any one entity having too much control over the ecosystem," Palfrey said.

Bob Sutor, vice president of standards and open source for IBM, appeared nervous that Massachusetts might not follow through on its proposal to adopt OpenDocument. "You made the right decision; don't turn back," he said on several occasions during the debate. Sutor added that only "one really good [document] standard" was needed going forward, not several.

Microsoft's Yates said that OpenDocument and Open XML come from very different design points. "In the future at some point there will be convergence," he said. In the near term, the transition period from proprietary document formats to Open XML-based ones will be "messy and complex", he added. "Competition between standards we believe is a very good thing."

"We don't have any religious objections to OpenDocument," Yates said. "We're very, very focused on what we're doing with Open XML."

According to state CIO Quinn, Massachusetts has one of the most disparate technology environments around. What he's looking for from software vendors in terms of technology is akin to Lego building blocks, he said. "They're different colors and different shapes, but they always snap together" and can be easily pulled apart and put back together, Quinn added.

Sticking to easily understood metaphors, he held up a birth certificate, then placed it in a transparent folder, indicating the access he hopes using the OpenDocument format will facilitate. Quinn then put the certificate in a brown paper bag to demonstrate the difficulty of accessing the same document using proprietary software.

He addressed concerns raised by people with disabilities who fear that OpenDocument won't be compatible with existing computer software that they use. "We won't disenfranchise anyone," Quinn said. Massachusetts is in the process of finalising a six-page memorandum of understanding to address accessibility issues.

"If we can't get the accessibility done [by 1 January 2007], we'll move the date," Quinn said. He added that the state should have a better idea of how likely it is to be able to move to OpenDocument by the start of 2007 in the first quarter of 2006.


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