Mass. reference model stirs controversy over open formats

Since its release last September, a technical reference model issued by Massachusetts has sparked considerable debate within the government technology community'and beyond.

At stake is the issue of how active a role public offices should take in fostering open standards. Should an agency adopt a new open format'one that would better suit its goals but may prove more difficult to deploy and manage? Or should agencies follow the best practices of the commercial IT industry, taking full advantage of cost efficiencies and new features that may follow?

The issue is especially pertinent when it comes to government records, which must be preserved for the ages.

'Documents are the lifeblood of the government,' said Dan Bricklin, IT consultant and Massachusetts resident who has been following the state's actions. He has posted the audio files of the public meetings the state has held on the matter.

In September, the state's CIO office issued an Enterprise Technical Reference Model that called for using open standards for data retention and exchange.

Since its release, the model has sparked considerable debate over its mandate to have state executive offices save documents in the OpenDocument format. OpenDocument is now undergoing the process of being ratified by the International Standards Organization, a global federation for validating standards.

Masschusetts CIO Peter Quinn has indicated that the reason behind the move to OpenDocument is that it will allow the state to better keep permanent records.

'Ease of access to electronic records created in proprietary formats is limited in time. Once the proprietary vendor abandons a particular version of an application or format, documents created and formatted in those applications and formats may become inaccessible to all readers,' according to the frequently asked questions section of the state CIO's Web site.

For office productivity tasks, most of Massachusetts' agencies now use a version of Microsoft Office, which does not offer the ability to save documents in this format. Microsoft Corp. has made no official announcement about supporting OpenDocument in future editions of the product. Other office products, including StarOffice from Sun Microsystems Inc. as well as the open-source OpenOffice on which StarOffice is based, do support the format.

'There are a lot of people who say the government is being harsh on Microsoft,' said Barry Murphy, an enterprise content management analyst for Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. Murphy spoke at the Storage to Knowledge conference held in October by PostNewsweek Tech Media, which publishes GCN.

'Microsoft Office is so pervasive, you wonder if it is realistic for Massachusetts to force people to learn a new technology and bring in another vendor,' Murphy said.

Microsoft itself has voiced disapproval over the reference model

'Essentially, what Massachusetts did was narrow their definition of openness pretty dramatically,' said Alan Yates, Microsoft's general manager of information worker business strategy. 'We feel it is unnecessary. It drives challenges, costs and problems that they really don't need to take on.'

Microsoft Office 12, the next version of the productivity suite due out next year, saves documents in another open and royalty-free format, one based on the Extensible Markup Language. Microsoft has created an XML schema called MSXML that Office will use to format word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentation slides.

Like an OpenDocument file, the formatting instructions and contents of an MSXML file are rendered in a plain-text format. (Though MSXML documents are zipped into a compressed file to collect the images and other components of the document under one file, the compression format itself is an open specification as well, Yates said.)

'We feel we have a format that is quite open for governments,' Yates said. 'Any product could be built to use that format. This format is open now and will always be open. You can't go back and close it up.'

The advantage with going with MSXML, Yates argues, is that state offices would not have to switch office products or purchase document conversion programs that convert documents into the OpenDocument format. They could also enjoy the advanced features that Microsoft Office offers, such as Section 508 compliance'a state requirement for IT tools.

Thus far, the state CIO's office doesn't buy Microsoft's argument. The technical reference FAQ specifically stated that the office did not consider MSXML sufficiently open.

Other observers feel that following one vendor's lead may not be the correct way to develop a standard.

'You're trying to back into compatibility,' said Brain Stevens, chief technology office for Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C. OpenDocument was developed as a community standard, he said, one that allowed participants to 'specify openly what a document format should look like.'

'The open-standards format is about rallying around what an open standard should be. If you can build momentum, think about what you can achieve,' Stevens said. 'It is totally a disruptive force [but] it could level the playing field.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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