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Open Warfare

Microsoft and Massachusetts continue sparring over file formats.

Peter Quinn is working at the center of a firestorm. As CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Quinn is responsible for procuring and managing more than 80,000 client systems across the state. So when he championed a proposal requiring all applications used in state government to support open standards-based file formats, the stakes were high.

So high, in fact, that the plan -- which calls for all state agencies to move to a nonproprietary format over the next year -- has captured the attention of the IT community and software vendors worldwide. For Microsoft, which has tens of thousands of copies of Office deployed in Massachusetts alone, the interest goes much deeper. The movement could ultimately threaten the company's hold over millions of client PCs.

Will Rodger, director of public policy for the Open Source and Industry Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says Massachusetts officials have a simple IT imperative in mind: ensuring access to state documents decades or even centuries in the future. A set of closed file formats, such as those employed by Microsoft Office, simply cannot provide that assurance, he argues.

"It's very easy and completely understandable that a customer -- a large customer like Massachusetts with tens of thousands of employees -- would want an open standard," Rodger says.

Understandable perhaps, but the move represents a major rules shift for Microsoft, says Michael Wendy, media relations manager in the public policy office at CompTIA, an international IT industry trade group based in Chicago. Wendy contends that the policy overrides market preferences while failing to guarantee the desired document access.

"We have a problem with the policy. For Microsoft, it's bad," says Wendy. "We didn't know 20 years ago that .DOC would be the de facto document format. We think the marketplace's standards and options are much more preferable going forward."

In a lengthy letter last fall, Microsoft General Manager Alan Yates urged Bay State officials to reconsider the plan. Yates argued that Microsoft supports the state's desire to foster interoperability and improve long-term records storage, but believes the new policy isn't the best method for achieving those goals. "The proposed policy is costly and unnecessary and would limit the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to a desktop software policy that is less functional, less open, and less flexible than the Commonwealth's current policy," Yates wrote.

At the center of the battle is the Open Document Format (ODF), a freely available, standards-based set of file formats that any vendor or customer can use to create, edit and exchange files. "Microsoft could solve this very quickly, simply by supporting ODF," says Rodger. "If they did that tomorrow, the debate would be over. And I think you would see Microsoft continue to keep a good chunk of the desktops they see now and the desktops in the future."

Instead, Microsoft has promised to submit its homegrown Office XML Reference Schema to the Ecma International standards body, and thereafter to the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). It's a move that has put Microsoft back in the game, according to a statement released by Massachusetts state secretary of administration and finance Thomas Trimarco.

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

Even without the late concession, most businesses are likely to stick with Office, says Ken Takahashi, an analyst with the Radicati Group, a research and consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. He says open-source alternatives to Office, such as Open Office or the Linux-based Koffice, are "still struggling to mimic Office features," and will prove expensive to adopt.

Takahashi says Microsoft's proprietary formats also boast key features -- such as digital-rights management support -- that are unmatched by ODF and Microsoft's own XML-based Office formats. Still, Rodger returns to the issue of customer control.

"At the end of the day, people need to control their docs," he says. "They can't rely on other people to be sure they can read their laws and documents 100 years from now. We all use 110 volts on our outlets, the railroads all run on the same tracks. It's just something Microsoft will have to get used to."

Wendy disagrees. "We think it's a false choice being foisted on Microsoft and the marketplace by the false policy," he says, adding: "It's not close to being over yet."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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