Wyatt Kash | Open progress

Editor's Desk

Wyatt Kash

The news earlier this month that Massachusetts was likely to approve Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an alternative for creating state documents set off a fresh firestorm of debate over proprietary versus open document formats.

The proposal, included in a new draft of Massachusetts' enterprise technical reference model, effectively reverses a controversial stand the commonwealth took two years ago when it announced plans to ban the use of proprietary formats in creating government documents.

At the time, the announcement by then-chief information officer Peter Quinn was seen in software circles as revolutionary ' and something of a victory for advocates of the Open Document Format (OOF). It certainly played well with those who railed against Microsoft's ubiquitous grip on office documents.

So it's not surprising that some would see this latest development as the political equivalent of Massachusetts extending import rights to the British East India Co., the company whose favored status granted by the British Parliament led to the Boston Tea Party.

At issue when Quinn made his decision ' and still today ' is the desire to free information from the underlying software with which documents were created. Quinn argued that moving to ODF would allow information to be shared among more applications and documents, and it would survive across more generations of software.

His decision, of course, quickly drew criticism. State employees complained that because Microsoft did not then offer a way to save documents in ODF, they would have to forfeit many of the tools to which they had become accustomed. Microsoft, meanwhile, called foul, arguing that the decision would effectively deny them a place at the government's table.

Since then, of course, Microsoft has moved into high gear to engineer what eventually became OOXML ' a product approved by Ecma International as an open standard, but which critics charge does more to make Microsoft documents backward-compatible than Office documents universally accessible. (See Joab Jackson's assessment of OOXML and ODF in GCN's July 2 issue.)

In the end, although many may complain about OOXML and Massachusetts' course reversal, Quinn's Technology Tea Party deserves credit for speeding progress toward liberation of data from the documents in which it resides.

Wyatt Kash, Editor in chief

E-mail: wkash@1105govinfo.com

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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