Massachusetts about-faces on Microsoft Office Open format

Massachusetts may use Microsoft Office after all, thanks to the company's pledge to put its format in the hands of an international standards body.

"The commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating an open document format," Massachusetts administration and finance secretary Tom Trimarco remarked in a statement. "If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats."

The announcement is a potential about-face for the state, which previously declined to use an open Microsoft format for an upcoming initiative to preserve documents for posterity.

Last month, announced that it would submit its Office Open Extensible Markup Language-based document format to Ecma International, a standards body. The next version of Microsoft Office, due next year, will save documents in this format.

Once approved by Ecma, Microsoft will submit the schema to the International Standards Organization.

The company also posted a covenant on its Web site that grants third parties permission to use the schema without having to pay royalties.

This submission addressed an issue raised by Massachusetts last fall. The state's CIO office had decreed that in the years to come state offices would have to save their documents in an open standard managed by a vendor-independent standards body. It noted that the OpenDocument Format was the only format that met this specification.

At present, the OpenDocument Format is under review as a possible ISO standard. Microsoft has no plans to support ODF, though other Office productivity suites, including those from Sun Microsystems Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., do use the format.

Microsoft protested this decision, claiming that its own XML-based format was equally as open as ODF. Despite talks between the two parties, the state CIO's office declined to use Microsoft's schema.

Trimarco's statement, however, shows that the state is willing to reconsider.

Reaction to the Ecma submission, along with Massachusetts' reconsideration, has been mixed. Carl Cargill, director of corporate standards for Sun, submitted an open letter to Trimarco that warned against adopting the standard too early. "Only after a specification has been approved by a broadly supported standards body?one that demonstrates acceptable levels of openness by being available to all competing products?should the Commonwealth consider including that open standard as one of its own," he wrote.

"Just as an agency would not purchase a product before its actual availability, so too would it be a mistake to rely on a single vendor's promise to submit a new product to a standards body at some point in the future," he wrote.

Other individuals in the open-source and open-standards communities have shown tentative approval.

Lawyer Andy Updegrove, who follows the Massachusetts open-standards issue on his ConsortiumInfo.Org Website, studied the new Office covenant and concluded it was a "substantial improvement for developers and users" over the license terms the company currently requires for using the existing Microsoft Office 2003 XML schema.

"The new covenant does not restrict 'conforming' usage of the specification, and it also appears (subject to a few ambiguities that Microsoft may or may not decide to resolve) that it would it hamper open-source developers," Updegrove e-mailed.

Updegrove did voice a concern that Microsoft published the covenant on its own site rather than on a vendor-independent standards body site. (ODF's covenant resides on the site for the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.) He also warned that until the format is approved by Ecma, Microsoft could alter or change features. Those parties that have already adopted the format would have to change their own configurations to meet these changes if they wanted to stay compliant to the specification.

Larry Rosen, a lawyer with the Rosenlaw and Einschlag technology law offices who has served as general counsel and secretary for the Open Source Initiative group, issued an open letter applauding Microsoft for the move.

"The first reaction people will have is, 'Where's the catch?' " he wrote. "I don't see anything we can't live with. We can participate in crafting the standard in Ecma, we can read and write Office 2003 files in open-source applications, and we don't have to pay royalties to Microsoft to do so."

Joab Jackson is an associate writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

About the Author

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

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