Open for anything: Loss of advocate doesn't stall push for 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 between open-standards advocates and proprietary vendors went public.

When Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn resigned his post 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 between open-standards advocates and proprietary vendors went public.

Government is in the midst of "a testing cauldron" for open architecture and standards, which may result "in a large-scale adoption after a five-year period." | Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin CIO.

Former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn

Commonwealth of Massachusetts

On one side sits Microsoft Corp. On the other side are open-standards advocates and vendors. They're fighting for fair competition that doesn't give Microsoft undue advantage because of what critics charge are the company's long-standing relationships with most state governments.

During his three-year tenure as Massachusetts's chief information officer, Quinn was a vocal advocate for open standards and freedom from proprietary software. While most states were dabbling quietly in open standards, Quinn and other Massachusetts 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.

Since taking over the reins of Massachusetts' IT division, Quinn's replacement, Bethann Pepoli, who was chief operating officer of the division, has voiced support for the state's effort to adopt the Enterprise Technical Reference Model, which Massachusetts released in September 2005.
The Enterprise Technical Reference Model borrows from the National Association of State CIOs Enterprise Architecture Toolkit and the federal government's Federal Enterprise Architecture. It provides an architectural framework to identify standards, specifications and technologies that support Massachusetts' computing environment.

Quinn couldn't be reached for comment.

Oasis in the storm

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

Open-standards software is adaptable to shifts in need and functionality, advocates said. 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.

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

The software giant has heard the demand for open-standards software, and its next desktop operating system, Office 12, will be based on Extensible Markup Language.
"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, which requires saving all files in OpenDocument format. The state rejected Microsoft's design, and chose OpenDocument for use in state agencies. 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 format 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., Framingham, Mass.

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.

Corporate maneuvers

Without mentioning Microsoft by name, John Weathersby, executive director of the Open Source Software Institute, Oxford, Miss., said powerful corporate interests used their leverage to fight aggressively 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 or not the letter or lobbying led directly to Quinn's exit is anyone's guess. It's worth noting that several state investigations into Quinn's conduct were launched this fall in an attempt to get the state to revisit its choice of OpenDocument over Microsoft's Office 12, including one by the Massachusetts Senate for what it characterized as a lack of due process in the state's IT division.

"The companies and public groups with
an interest in OpenDocument formats will continue to fight." | Tom Rabon, Red Hat Inc.

Microsoft's McKee declined comment on those events, but said Quinn's resignation was a surprise. He also said that 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, denied that such a change was occurring.

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

But could Microsoft work within the OpenDocument standard? The company doesn't seem to think so but is unsure, McKee said. The two systems should be able to communicate with one another and exchange data, although that may 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."

Whatever the outcome in Massachusetts, the demand for open-standards products will remain strong, said Tom Rabon, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Linux software developer Red Hat Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

"This is not going away," Rabon said. "The companies and public groups that have an interest in OpenDocument formats will continue to fight."

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

"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."

Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield can be reached at

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