Open source gains momentum

Experts claim adoption is not a matter of if, but when




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"It's not a question of if a mass movement to open documents will occur, it's a question of when it will occur and how quickly it will occur." ? Tom Rabon, Red Hat Inc.

When Red Hat Inc.'s Tom Rabon was in Malaysia recently, talking with government officials about open-source technology, he was surprised by one of the first questions he was asked by the media there: What's going on with Massachusetts' state government's decision to adopt the OpenDocument format?

"The eyes of the world are really on Massachusetts now," said Rabon, executive vice president of corporate affairs for the Raleigh, N.C., company. "I thought it was pretty interesting that on the other side of the world, they're thinking about what's happening here."

While the battle in Massachusetts continues ? mounting opposition threatens the scheduled 2007 implementation of OpenDocument ? open-source technology and the OpenDocument format seem to be gaining momentum, Rabon said.

"It's not a question of if a mass movement to open documents will occur, it's a question of when it will occur and how quickly it will occur," he said.

Other industry observers agree that some sort of document standard is inevitable, and that shift could lead to opportunities for systems integrators and software companies.


For Massachusetts, or any other entity, migrating to a new format after decades using Microsoft Office will be significant, said Stephen O'Grady of industry analysis firm RedMonk of Denver.

"The transition is going to be significant in that you're moving to a totally different format: an XML [Extensible Markup Language] format rather than one that is binary in nature," O'Grady said.

OpenDocument is XML-based and incorporates features required by text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents.

Microsoft Corp.'s upcoming version of Office, code named Office 12, also will be based on XML, so choosing either suite likely will present government entities with migration issues.

A looming issue is that the OpenDocument format won't necessarily have the same fidelity when it comes to accessing documents.

"It depends highly on what's the nature of the documents," O'Grady said. "If you have average Word documents with not a lot of formatting or relatively simple spreadsheets, the odds are pretty good they will translate well."

For complex spreadsheets with lots of macros or heavily formatted Word documents, however, the translation will be more difficult, O'Grady said.

Migrating from Microsoft's old products to its new Office 12 likely will be more seamless. Microsoft plans to support older formats in its new software, O'Grady said. But agencies that choose Microsoft software are making a commitment to the company and a format it controls, he said.

Microsoft officials, who do not support Massachusetts' mandate, said those choices should be made by customers, not by a government mandate.

"Ultimately, it is a specification developed by Sun [Microsystems] and IBM for a product that they have," said Stuart McKee, national technology officer of Microsoft's Public Sector. "And it is really an attempt in a competitive space to create a procurement preference for their products."


From the perspective of systems integrators assisting government agencies with migrating to OpenDocument, it is unknown what problems could arise, because there is no other widely adopted application that has been implemented on a scale like that of Office, McKee said.

OpenDocument supporters said that's the problem: Microsoft's productivity software dominance has made it the de facto standard.

"The whole idea of having standards is that all the vendors can participate in the opportunity," Red Hat's Rabon said.

One of the main arguments in support of Massachusetts' decision is that governments need to offer open access to citizens. Offering some government documents in a proprietary format could limit access.

"There's the whole issue of how governments do requests for proposals," said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research Corp. of Darien, Conn. "Everyone is supposed to have a fair chance, right? Well, can that be the case if one company's software format has, in essence, been sanctioned for preferential treatment?"

Proponents of the OpenDocument standard argue that saving documents in a proprietary format could lead to problems in 20 or 30 years if the company supporting that format decides to end that support.

Microsoft officials could decide to support the OpenDocument format. "Standards are an important thing, and Microsoft, as a company, contributes to all kinds of standards from http to [Transit Communication Interface Profile]," Microsoft's McKee said.

But it doesn't appear that Microsoft officials are ready to embrace the OpenDocument standard.

"From Microsoft's perspective, we believe very strongly that procurement should be based on merit and not mandate, that government should be procuring their technology and technology solutions based on best value for delivering against their business requirements," McKee said. A document format mandate will lead to fewer choices for customers, he said.

Although there would be few software choices at first, eventually an open standard would bring more competition, Wilcox said. And any new standard or mandate likely would lead to opportunities for IT companies.

"If Massachusetts goes forward, that offers the opportunity for systems integrators and the like to do a couple of things," RedMonk's O'Grady said. "First is to ease the pain of migration to the OpenDocument format."

Automated tools can go through documents and determine which can be converted easily and which cannot. For more difficult documents, system integrators likely will have to assist in the transition.

Whatever happens in Massachusetts, the XML-based format is coming, as is Microsoft's services model. Transitioning to that technology certainly will lead to opportunities for systems integrators.

"When we get to the point where the standard format for documents become an XML-based format, that allows systems integrators to design more sophisticated document handling application," O'Grady said.

In document management systems with workflows, for example, XML could bring new power. Typically, those systems treat documents as a single box. With XML, the files could be deconstructed into layers to work on individual areas such as formatting.

"Regardless of whether it's Microsoft or OpenDocument, I think we will see systems integrators begin to try and do more with your typical office productivity file than we've seen in the past," O'Grady said.

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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