Mass. still closing in on open standards

Loss of advocate Quinn doesn't slow down state's effort

"One of the prime people disagreeing [with Massachusetts' direction] would be Microsoft." 'Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin CIO and NASCIO president

OPENNESS IN GOVERNMENT: Former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn had championed the state government's move to open standards.

When Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn resigned in December, citing political turmoil that threatened to derail the state's adoption of an open-standards format for software, the behind-the-scenes battle over open standards went public.


On one side sits Microsoft Corp. On the other side are open-standards advocates and vendors who say they want a level playing field that doesn't give Microsoft undue advantage because of its long-standing relationships with most state governments.


During his three-year tenure as Massachusetts' CIO, Quinn was a vocal advocate for open standards. While most states were dabbling quietly, Quinn and other state officials announced they intended to make open standards an integral part of their IT strategy.


Analysts and industry officials said the public declaration went a long way toward advancing the use of open standards in state government.


New model

The state's new acting CIO, Bethann Pepoli, formerly chief operating officer of the division, has voiced support for the state's effort to adopt the En- terprise Technical Reference Model, which Massachusetts released in September 2005. The model borrows from the National Association of State CIOs' Enterprise Architecture Toolkit and the Federal Enterprise Architecture. It provides an architectural framework to identify standards, specifications and technologies that support Massachusetts' computing environment.


The model mandates that state offices, by January 2007, use the OpenDocument open-standard format, which is managed by Oasis, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.


Open-standards software can be adapted, advocates say, as needs and functionality requirements change. For example, it sets specifications for how a document is to be saved electronically to ensure accessibility. It also allows for future reverse engineering of software to open files through set standards.


Vendors on board

Oasis' board comprises executives from companies that support open standards, including IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., SAP America Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa., and Sun Microsystems Inc. The board also includes a Microsoft representative.


The software giant has noticed the demand for open-standards software; its next office suite, Office 2007, will use Extensible Markup Language formats for popular applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint.


'The expectation that systems will be able to talk to each other now and in the future is already a very significant customer demand,' said Stuart McKee, Microsoft's national technology officer.


Microsoft met with Massachusetts officials to design a system that would comply with the state's open-standards mandate. The state rejected Microsoft's design and chose OpenDocument instead. That has Microsoft crying foul.


'What Massachusetts has done is created a thinly veiled procurement preference, and that is what we think is out of line,' McKee said.


In response, Microsoft may have launched a campaign against Quinn and the state's OpenDocument mandate, according to some government officials and industry sources.
'One of the prime people disagreeing [with Massachusetts' direction] would be Microsoft,' said Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin CIO and NASCIO president. 'I'm fairly sure there was some disagreement in other circles, but the most significant voice in that dissent was clearly Microsoft's.'


Microsoft lodged its complaints with the state in writing, said Shawn McCarthy, a senior analyst for government IT with market research firm International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., and a columnist for GCN.


War of words

Microsoft general manager Alan Yates in September wrote a 15-page letter to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance, outlining Microsoft's concerns, McCarthy said.


'That letter was passed around quite a bit, and quoted both internally and externally,' he said.


Without mentioning Microsoft by name, John Weathersby, executive director of the Open Source Software Institute of Oxford, Miss., said powerful corporate interests used their leverage to aggressively fight the state's initiative.


'It demonstrates the lengths to which some will go to try to slow the adoption of open standards within public-sector IT environments,' he said.


Whether the letter or lobbying led directly to Quinn's exit is anyone's guess.
Microsoft's McKee declined comment on those events, but said Quinn's resignation was a surprise. He also said Microsoft might not be excluded from Massachusetts' open-standards business after all.


'The new interim CIO is crafting an additional policy,' McKee said.


Pepoli, who declined an interview request but responded to questions via e-mail, denied that such a change was occurring.


Massachusetts 'is not 'crafting an additional policy' in regard to the OpenDocument initiative,' Pepoli said. 'We are proceeding with implementation of the OpenDocument format standard.'


But could Microsoft work within the OpenDocument standard? The company isn't sure, McKee said. The two systems should be able to communicate with one another and exchange data, although that could require additional applications, McKee said.
'The word 'compatible' is kind of tricky,' he said. 'What they've asked for in their standard is that the default save-as must be in the ODF format. So what they've asked us to do is to have our product save into a format that, frankly, we feel is inferior.'


The debate continues over whose standard will be adopted by most users in the next round of desktop software upgrades, but the wish of states to move toward open standards is not waning, Miszewski said. While states look to build service-oriented architectures, they will need open standards to enable all their systems to communicate.


'We're in the middle of a testing cauldron right now, in terms of service-oriented architecture and in regard to open standards,' Miszewski said. 'If that proves out and works well, I think you'll see a large-scale adoption after a five-year period.'


Although he said he sees no legal entanglements in adopting open-standards software, he also said the potential for eliminating competition in the procurement process could raise legal questions.


'There are times when that will happen,' he said, 'but you need to clear that stuff up over time.'


Issues surrounding open-standards adoption, as well as the tactics used against Quinn, could cause other state IT leaders to think twice before pushing for it, Weathersby said.


'This will intimidate some public-sector IT leaders,' he said. 'But I also believe that it will inspire others to stand up and do what is in the best interest of their state.'


Ethan Butterfield is a staff writer for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology.

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