Bay State battle

Massachusetts pushes for software to link operating systems, open-standards mandate

Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez

Courtesy photo

The controversy surrounding Massachusetts' mandate to begin saving all files in an open-standard format won't go away, and is again changing the Bay State's approach to implementing open operating systems.

Instead of the complaints facing his predecessor over the state's implementation of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model, CIO Louis Gutierrez has heard highly vocal objections from disability advocates and state legislators over accessibility concerns.

The model instructs state employees to save all files in Open Document Format to ensure future accessibility.

Massachusetts had considered moving from proprietary operating systems from Microsoft Corp. to an alternative system that supports Open Document, Gutierrez said in an Aug. 23 letter to the state's Information Technology Advisory Board. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but a state spokesman forwarded to Washington Technology Gutierrez' correspondence with the board.

Instead of moving to an entirely new office applications suite, Gutierrez wrote that the state will implement software patches to let Microsoft Office save and read Open Document Format, thus meeting the mandate set by the enterprise model. The patches will be implemented first in select agencies, including the Massachusetts Office on Disability, by Jan. 1, 2007.

Several other states and the European Union are closely watching what is happening in Massachusetts, said Gary Edwards, founding partner of the Open Document Foundation Inc., a Redwood City, Calif., non-profit group that advocates for implementation of the open standard.

"If Massachusetts can make it work, it works for everyone: state, federal, local and international," he said.

Concern looms

Open Document standards set specifications for how a document is saved electronically, so that it always will be accessible and allow reverse engineering of software to open files through set standards.

Massachusetts had set a January deadline for enterprisewide compliance with the open-standards mandate. The deadline has been pushed back to June 2007, and could be moved further, according to Gutierrez' letter.

Concerns expressed by disability advocates and state officials center on whether an alternative operating system would work with assistive technology, which people with disabilities use and that works with Microsoft products.

Edward said he sees the patch solution as a way for Massachusetts to appease Microsoft, which launched a lobbying campaign with legislators in an effort to get the state to re-visit its commitment to open standards.

"It allows Massachusetts to skirt having a policy that mandates one operating platform over another," Edwards said.

Former CIO Peter Quinn resigned in December 2005 after the state's implementation of its new enterprise model touched off a backlash from Microsoft and members of the Massachusetts legislature.

The model was released in September 2005 with the goals of creating a services-oriented architecture that uses open-standards solutions, and of ensuring that executive branch agencies save all files in Open Document Format. The forces behind the initiative were Quinn and then state Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss.

But when Massachusetts in May released a request for information on translators, it determined that no such conversion software yet existed. The state got seven responses from companies working on conversion software, including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems Inc., and the Open Document Foundation.

Microsoft is working on its own translator software, but it is doing so with the idea that the patch solution may represent a softening of the Bay State's stance on moving toward fully open operating systems.

"Open-source advocates in the government made a quick decision that is now being turned into a more practical and workable focus on using Open Document standards," said Alan Yates, general manager for information worker business strategy at Microsoft.

The plug-ins are still being tested, but Gutierrez said that he anticipates at least one will be ready for implementation by January 2007. He also said the Massachusetts Information Technology Division will review the enterprise model every six months "to take into account changes in the information technology, evolving standards and new accessibility concerns."
Although the request for information for converter software did not ask for price estimates, the response from Media Entities Inc., Waltham, Mass., indicated that its technology would cost $99 per plug-in, and an additional $125,000 for further development.

Yates said Microsoft's translator product would be made available free and is being tested in open-source projects by third-party companies.

Open source varies from open standard in that its code is available for all to see and use, whereas an open standard only makes public the standard that must be achieved, and not the language the technology is written in.

"Today, desktop systems and data and back-office data too often are not very interoperable," Yates said. "By opening up the document formats we think we will, over time, unleash many new scenarios for content management."

Fear of the unknown

The development of conversion software may mean the discussion of which operating system to use in state and local government could shift from one about standards to one about which product to use, said Andrea Di Maio, vice president for public sector research at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Most government employees only use a portion of Microsoft Office's functionalities, and might be served just as well by a less robust system that directly supports Open Document Format, he said. An agency also could provide employees who need the additional functionality with a Microsoft product while supplying most others with open-standards packages.

"This is a discussion many agencies have been having for several years, and they were blocked by the incompatibility of formats," Di Maio said. "Very few users have decided to move out of Microsoft, because they didn't want to step into the unknown. With this perceived compatibility and with these converters made available, the decision is easier."

Next year will clarify much in the standards debate. During that time, according to industry officials, Microsoft plans to release its latest version of Office, and hopes to receive standardization from the European Computer Manufacturers Association for its own open standard for operating systems, Office Open Extensible Markup Language.

Microsoft also will face competition from Web-based software from IBM Corp. (Workplace Managed Client) and Google Inc. (Writely). Both packages support Open Document Format, said Andrew Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston law firm that represents technology clients.

Microsoft may need to shift its course, Di Maio said. Instead of offering more features in new versions of Office, it may need to offer fewer features in stripped-down versions, she said.
"Just thinking about what the desktop of the future will look like, it's not going to be a fat one. It might not be a very thin one, but perhaps a combination," Di Maio said. "How might they provide stripped down versions of some of their products at a fraction of the current price?"

As the battle to supply operating systems heats up, and as conversion software becomes a reality, state and local governments will be able to dictate how to proceed, Edwards said.

The Open Document Format plug-ins themselves do not change the world, Edwards said. "What they do is create a moment of incredible opportunity, almost like a key that unlocks the door but does not open it."

Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield can be reached at ebutterfield@postnewsweektech.com.

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