Mass. Finalizes Plan to Drop MS Office

Massachusetts has finalized a proposal to move away from proprietary document formats to open standards based on XML, which would eliminate Microsoft Office as an option for creating new documents. Microsoft responded harshly to the plan, calling it "inconsistent and discriminatory."

The final Enterprise Technical Reference Model version 3.5 was completed Wednesday following a period of public comment and a "lengthy discussion" at the September meeting of the Massachusetts IT Advisory Board. A draft of the proposal was published in late August detailing the changes.

ETRM version 3.5 is the culmination of an ambitious project to promote the use of open source and open standards software within the Massachusetts government. The goal was to save money that would have been spent licensing expensive proprietary software and ensure interoperability between agencies.

Massachusetts chose the OpenDocument format, otherwise known as the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, for all electronic documents created by Executive Department agencies.

Although the plan is complete, the Commonwealth is expected to discuss the matter further before official ratification. However, according to the group, "ITD is authorized under its enabling legislation...to set standards for electronic documents created by Executive Department agencies."

The ETRM only applies to new documents, and the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) set a deadline of January 1, 2007 for migrating to applications that work with OpenDocument. Such programs include OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, and IBM Workplace among others.

Microsoft Office 2003 -- by far the most popular office suite used by the majority of businesses and governments -- would not be acceptable under the new rules. In turn, Microsoft lashed out at the proposal in an extensive letter to Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn.

"We have substantial concerns, however, with the definition of "open formats" in the current proposal. This definition mandates adoption of a single, immature format for office documents throughout the Commonwealth's executive agencies and effectively requires deployment of a single office application technology within those executive agencies," the Redmond company wrote.

Although the ETRM identifies four products as examples of applications supporting OpenDocument, Microsoft says "these products are slight variations of the same StarOffice code base, which Sun acquired from a German company in 1999."

In a FAQ, the Massachusetts ITD specifically responded to Microsoft's claims that OpenDocument is an "immature format," saying, "The Open Document Format has been in use for several years and is the only XML-based document standard accepted by a standard-setting body. Multiple stable office applications currently support the standard."

Microsoft also questioned the Commonwealth's decision to shy away from a previous stance that recognized Office 2003 as an "open standard." Office 2003 is based on XML, but the format uses proprietary schemas that are guarded under complex licenses.

Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss previously hinted that Office could be deemed acceptable if Microsoft modified its license.

"Now, with the imminent departure of Secretary Kriss at hand, the Commonwealth is proposing a policy that is at odds with its previous affirmation of Microsoft's approach," Microsoft said. "Such a sudden reversal by the CIO's office is questionable in its timing, process, motivation, and commitment."

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