Massachusetts: MS Open XML Now in Equal Standing with ODF

Late today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced that it has formally ratified the 4.0 version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Policy. As a result, Microsoft's Office Open XML format -- recently ratified by the ECMA standards body -- is now considered in equal stature with OASIS' OpenDocument Format, for use by state employees.

The ratification officially codifies Massachusetts' approval last month of the new default format of Microsoft Office 2007, and opens a new chapter in the strange controversy over something as seemingly uninteresting on the surface as storage formats. A public institution's choice of storage formats dictates the applications its workers use to utilize those formats. Massachusetts has not rejected ODF, nor is it considering ODF in some sort of alternate or subservient stance with respect to OOXML.

During the nearly month-long review period, the state's Information Technology division received some 460 comments. Among those comments were concerns raised over whether, by accepting OOXML, the State would be mandating its employees to use Office 2007.

But the final draft of the State's ETRM 4.0 document tries to allay those concerns by listing multiple applications that either support OOXML now or whose manufacturers pledge to support it later.

"The Open XML format may be used for office documents such as text documents (.docx), spreadsheets (.xlsx), and presentations (.pptx)," the final draft reads. "The Open XML format is currently supported by a variety of office applications including Microsoft Office 2007, OpenOffice Novell Edition, and NeoOffice 2.1. Corel has announced Open XML support for WordPerfect 2007. In addition, the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack enables older versions of Microsoft Office such as Office 2003, XP and 2000, to translate documents to and from Open XML Format for text, presentation and spreadsheet documents."

The document goes on to say that state employees' systems are expected to migrate away from the use of any application that supports only binary storage formats, in favor of one that is based in XML.

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10:30 pm ET August 1, 2007 - Comments on Massachusetts’ decision came fast and furious Wednesday evening. Writing on behalf of the State’s Information Technology Division’s (ITD), its Interim Revenue Commissioner, Henry Dormitzer, and acting CIO Bethann Popoli, stated the following: “The Commonwealth continues on its path toward open, XML-based document formats without reflecting a vendor or commercial bias in ETRM v4.0.

Many of the comments we received identify concerns regarding the Open XML specification. We believe that these concerns, as with those regarding ODF, are appropriately handled through the standards setting process, and we expect both standards to evolve and improve. Moreover, we believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards. Therefore, we will be moving forward to include both ODF and Open XML as acceptable document formats.”

An outspoken critic of Massachusetts’ change in stance, Linux Foundation board member and open-source attorney Andrew Updegrove, cited the above paragraph in his statement this evening, compared it to the State’s prior position of including only open standards as he defines them, and added the following:

“Tellingly, the statement quoted above retreats from that position [of including only open standards], taking cover instead behind the need to move ‘to XML-based document formats’ while abandoning the moral high ground of insisting on international adoption, as well as convincing proof that the Microsoft formats will result in the type of future accessibility that led to the ITD's original position. Rather than waiting - as little as one month - to see whether Ecma 376 would be granted that status by ISO/IEC JTC1, the current administration has opted instead to punt - a substantial and regrettable retreat from the stance that brought OOXML this far along the open standards road.

“Massachusetts - or, more properly, a small number of courageous public servants - did something important two years ago when they took a stand for open formats,” Updegrove continued. “It is regrettable that their successors have seen fit to abandon that principled stance, even to the expedient extent of waiting a short while longer to see whether Microsoft's OOXML formats will be found to be sufficient or lacking under the microscope of the global standards adoption process.”

Meanwhile, a critic of Massachusetts’ stance from a completely different position – Association for Competitive Technology President Jonathan Zuck – reiterated his stance that the State should not have adopted a document that restricts users to standardized formats only, but sounded a note of hope that its final draft at least acknowledged what he believes to be the problems inherent in such restrictions.

“By committing only to broad open standards approved by international committees, the needs of smaller user groups can be overlooked,” Zuck wrote late today. “As the ETRM acknowledges, there are currently no office applications with native ODF support that provide accessibility for persons who use assistive technology devices. It is obvious from the changes that the new administration realizes the problems inherent in this kind of policy. 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.”

Writing for the Initiative for Software Choice, a project of the Computing Technology Industry Association (of which Microsoft is a member), Executive Director Melanie Wyne writes, “We have long stated that where interoperability is fostered through open standards that can be implemented in multiple formats and technologies, all IT vendors have incentives to develop products and services that encourage innovation, enhance competition and expand consumer choice. The new ETRM moves confidently in this direction.”

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