Massachusetts Weighs Dropping Office for Open Alternative

In a blow to Microsoft and a strong vote of support for open-source software, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is putting in motion a plan to abandon the use of the Microsoft Office suite of desktop productivity applications in favor of an open-source approach that may make it easier to share documents.

The state announced this week that after a lengthy discussion with open-source community representatives, it would require all state agencies to be prepared to use the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocument, by Jan. 1, 2007.

Open to Change

OpenDocument is an XML-based format that was approved for use earlier this year by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS.

Peter Quinn, the state’s chief information officer, said the state is accepting public comment on the plan until Sept. 9, but all indications are that the migration away from Microsoft Office will go ahead. The open standard will be applied to documents, spreadsheets and reports and presentations that contain both graphics and text.

Quinn said the plan was drawn up after “a series of discussions with industry representatives and experts about our future direction” and an exploration of “open formats particularly as they relate to office documents, their importance for the current and future accessibility of government records, and the relative ‘openness’ of the format options available to us.”

Quinn acknowledged that the migration will be a “considerable” effort, which is one of the reason agencies are being given more than a year to comply. While Office products under license can continue to be used, new licenses will only be purchased for products supporting open standards. In addition to OpenDocument, the state also endorses XML-equipped versions of Adobe Acrobat as an acceptable approach to creating documents that can be shared, updated and modified by various parties.

Familiar Ring

By most accounts, Massachusetts is the first state to take such a public stance in favor of an open-source approach, which could boost software makers who have embraced the format. Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice and products from IBM and Novell all work in the open-soure platform.

While the government market itself is important to Microsoft, the trickle-down effect may be even more substantial. Because they interact with government agencies on a regular basis — paying taxes, filing corporate documents and so on — many businesses may find it prudent to adopt a format that’s compatible with the one used by their home states.

Other government agencies, especially foreign governments, have considered or even undertaken moves away from Microsoft products, often embracing open source instead. Many have done so for different reasons, however, with some citing security worries and others citing economic reasons, including a desire to let local companies provide software and support, rather than funneling funds to the U.S.-based Microsoft.

In Europe, major cities such as Bergen, Norway and Vienna are among those that have turned to open-source alternatives to Windows.

Microsoft has tried to counter some of those moves, offering some governments a chance to view the company’s highly guarded Windows source code to see for themselves the level of security it offers, and with some top Microsoft executives personally lobbying some governments to keep Windows in place.

While some compared the actions of the state to the Boston Tea Party, the act of defiance that preceded the Revolutionary War, the true impact of the move may not be known for some time.

“The importance here is more symbolic than anything,” said Red Monk analyst Stephen O’Grady. “While Massachusetts is undoubtedly a sizable contract for Microsoft, the revenue is incidental to the big picture: a sizable win in the U.S. for the OpenDocument Format.”

O’Grady noted that alternative desktop applications have gotten “good to great” traction in many overseas locations while uptake has been “far less impressive here in the United States. That’s attributable to a variety of factors: some technical, some political, some economic, but the net of it is that the U.S. market has been a difficult one to crack.”

Change for Microsoft?

“With the state of Massachusetts’ economic and political significance mandating standardization on an open standard currently not supported by Microsoft Office, however, it’s interesting to speculate on how long the market will remain similarly impenetrable,” O’Grady added.

Some analysts are already beginning to speculate that Microsoft may be prompted, or forced, to build support for OpenDocument into future versions of the Office suite.

Microsoft has touted the XML capabilities it is building into the upcoming version of Office, which will enable more file sharing among different applications, and it has not ruled out the possibility of building a plug-in program that would let Office documents be translated to and from OpenDocument format.

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