Top national advocate for the disabled sets terms for endorsement of OpenDocument Format

Top national advocate for the disabled sets terms for endorsement of OpenDocument Format

Summary: Meet Curtis Chong.  Chong is president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science and is considered to be one of the more important shakers and movers in the disability community when it comes to the accessibilty of technology.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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cchong.jpgMeet Curtis Chong.  Chong is president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science and is considered to be one of the more important shakers and movers in the disability community when it comes to the accessibilty of technology.  Among the community of people with blindness and serious visual impairments, he is probably one of the country's top three most influential advocates on the accessibility front.  For those looking to alter the technology landscape in a way that affects People With Disabilities (PWDs), Chong's opinion can make or break new initiatives like the one in Massachusetts where that state's Information Technology Division (MA ITD) is trying to establish the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as a standard format for creating and saving public documents. 

So far, Chong has opposed the Massachusetts plan. But, as you're about to find out, he's actually willing to endorse it and he's putting the ball in the pro-ODFers' court.

While pro-ODF vendors such as IBM, Sun, Novell, Adobe, Corel, Google, Apple, HP, Computer Associates, Red Hat, Nokia, and others remain hopeful that recent political machinations in Massachusetts won't derail MA ITD's ratification of ODF as an Executive Branch-wide standard, it's clear that they may have underestimated the extent to which PWDs may not only be a lynchpin to ODF's acceptance, but also to which those who oppose ODF (including Microsoft and certain politicians) would use the accessibility issue as a leverage point that could lead to the scuttling of the ODF policy. 

Microsoft Office is currently the productivity suite of choice for most of the state's employees.  But Microsoft's choice not to support ODF means that both it and its proprietary file formats will be off limits once the state's ODF policy goes into effect.  MA ITD's plan calls for implementation of the ODF standard to start on January 1, 2007.  But, ODF as a file format is barely six months old.  Even worse, of the applications that support it -- of which there are hardly any -- none are in the same league as Microsoft Office-based solutions  when it comes to accessibility for PWDs (thanks in large part to expensive third party accessibility add-ons like JAWS that are designed specifically to work with Office).   As the January 1, 2007 implementation date draws closer, the spotlight has shifted to state employees with disabilities who need a solution that's at least as accessible as Microsoft Office can be made to be (again, through third party products). 

Short of an ODF-compliant solution that meet or beat the accessibilty of Office-based solutions, ODF opponents including Curtis Chong have made hay out of the chances that disabled state employees could show up for work on 1/1/07 and be forced to work with inadequate software (or worse, forced out of work because they can't get their jobs done).  Microsoft could easily resolve the impasse by supporting ODF.  When it has served the company's best interests before (for example, when it wanted to make it easier for customers of Wordpefect and Lotus 123 to switch to Microsoft's Word and Excel), Microsoft was quick to support competing file formats. 

But, by supporting ODF, Office could lose customers to far less expensive productivity solutions (such as the open source-based OpenOffice.org) or Web-based services.  With no incentive to promote that sort of switching anytime soon , the company is clearly aware of the leverage being afforded to it and its products by the accessibilty issue.  As long as Microsoft Office stands heads and tails above other solutions in terms of accessibility for PWDs, the accessibility issue virtually guarantees Microsoft continued domination of the state's desktops.  Particularly when PWD accessibility advocates like Curtis Chong are doing what they should be doing: simply standing up for the rights of their constituents.

Long term however, given the open standard nature of ODF and given the number of large vendors behind it, ODF-compliant solutions actually stand a good chance at being better for PWDs than do Microsoft Office-based solutions.  In a blog entry I wrote two weeks ago (see Is the OpenDocument Format strategically better for the disabled? Maybe.), I explored this possibility and actually found a contemporary of Chong's -- Bryon Charlson, director of the Accessibility Technology Program at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts -- who, in stark contrast to the testimony (full transcript here) presented at a recent Massachusetts hearing on ODF (that took place on Halloween), saw the potential of the open file format to result in solutions that were better for PWDs than those based on Microsoft Office. 

As it turns out, Charlson acknowledged that the real beef of PWDs when it comes to ODF isn't ODF itself but rather the January 1, 2007 implementation date which, even according to the vendors that are racing to build solutions, is overly optimistic in terms of realistically having any highly PWD-accessible ODF-compliant offerings in the market -- a critically important detail that the hearing never flushed out and that those involved in the controversy routinely overlook.  Even so, according to a blog written by IBM vice president of standards and open source Bob Sutor, IBM plans to have make its ODF-compliant solution PWD-accessible as early as 2007.  Wrote Sutor:

IBM's Workplace productivity tools available through Workplace Managed Client including word processing, spreadsheet and presentation editors are currently planned to be fully accessible on a Windows platform by 2007. Additionally, these productivity tools are currently planned to be fully accessible on a Linux platform by 2008.

However, if history is any guide, plans and actual ship dates can differ and IBM's statement does not guarantee the availability of those products on time.  Accessibility experts also have told me that functional descriptions such as "fully accessible" can be subject to interpretation.  In other words, there's no guarantee that a vendor's interpretation of "fully accessible" will meet the standard for accessibility as defined by PWDs. In terms of the overall availability of fully accessible ODF-compliant solutions, IBM's Workplace is also a special breed of application.  Billed to me earlier this year by IBM as a "rich client" architecture, Workplace requires special server-side components and as such, is normally used as a department or company-wide solution.  While its availability will be a proof point for both ODF and accessible solutions, to the extent that it can't be implemented as a single destkop solution (in other words, as Microsoft Office substitute) that could interoperate via ODF with other less PWD-accessible solutions that non-PWDs might elect to us, it is unlikely that the timely availability of IBM's Managed Workplace Client alone will satisfy accessibility advocates such as Chong.

In an effort to offer some clarity to my assessment of ODF's strategic accessibility potential, Chong responded to my blog with a letter that detailed the reasons for his current opposition to Massachusetts' plans for the largely untested file format.  Given his prominence in the PWD community, I took the letter very seriously.  But, as evidence of how political wrangling, vendor maneuvering, and misinformed media coverage have obfuscated the important issues for key PWD advocates like Chong, his letter proved that, for whatever reasons, his position on ODF was not taking some of the most critical facts into consideration.  For example, as you can see in the second paragraph of his letter (reproduced with his approval), Chong characterizes ODF as an open source initiative when, in reality, by the time January 1, 2007 rolls around, the majority of ODF-compliant solutions (eg: IBM's Workplace Managed Client)  will probably be commercial in nature (rather than open source).  Wrote Chong:

As you might imagine, the Open Source advocates are keenly interested in having me and the National Federation of the blind in Computer Science adopt a position strongly supporting ODF and Open Source.  There are those who argue that Open Source will break the Microsoft monopoly, eliminate the need to pay high prices for software, and provide people with disabilities with even greater accessibility than we have today.  I submit that this view is overly simplistic.

Later in his letter, Chong goes on to summarize:

The information I have would lead me to believe that access technologies for the Open Source environment are in their infancy, and when they are compared feature for feature with what we have in Windows, they will come up short.  When one compares the training resources and information available for access technologies in Windows against that available for Open source, this, too, demonstrates that the Open Source community still has a long way to go.

However, Chong's letter also acknowledges that the accessibilty of Office-based solutions is largely due to the "heroic" efforts of third party software developers whose software routinely breaks everytime Microsoft upgrades its software because of the way that software relies on interfaces to Office and Windows, many of which are not well-documented or not documented at all.  Wrote Chong:

....such access as we have relies heavily upon the unsung and heroic efforts of a handful of small companies whose software must often steal and scrape such information as they can from an operating system and application programs that are designed only incidentally to provide the information they need.  The access we currently have to applications running in the Windows environment is the culmination of literally decades of software development, user experience, and software evolution

In order for the Screen access technology used in Windows to be able to do its job, it must rely upon a variety of informational channels to get what it needs.  Some information comes from well-documented and supported interfaces provided by application and/or operating system software, some information comes from a direct examination of document object models (if you will, the format of the data), and yet more information comes through undocumented but vital video hooks that screen access software developers have been compelled to use out of necessity......Moreover, whenever Microsoft decides to come out with a new version of Office or Windows, screen access technology developers and the blind community must race to keep up. If they do not, such access as we have enjoyed could evaporate literally overnight. Yet, despite these imperfections, the access that we do enjoy in Windows is unmatched on any other platform in use today.

Then, in the letter, Chong says something that none of those who testified on behalf of PWDs at the Halloween Hearing bothered to say -- something that would have been critical for the state senator (Marc R. Pacheco) who presided over the hearing to say:

The National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science would give its enthusiastic support to the OpenDocument format once we are satisfied that our concerns with respect to nonvisual access have been addressed.

Not only does this correspond with what the Carroll Center for the Blind's Charlson told me, but it may also be the first time that someone who, on a national level represents those with blindness or severe visual impairments, has acknowledged the PWD community's openness to ODF in writing.  But what Chong's letter indicated no knowlege of is that the same criteria officially applies to Massachusetts'  January 1, 2007 planned implementation date.  In other words, if, on that date, the available ODF-compliant solutions prove to be sorely lacking in terms of their accessibility, MA ITD would actually postpone the implementation until those solutions are proven to address the accessibility requirements of PWDs.  This was confirmed to me in the momemts just prior to the start of the Halloween Hearing by MA ITD CIO Peter Quinn and general counsel Linda Hamel. 

So, just to sumarize the crossed wires:  MA ITD says it won't force the state's disabled workers to switch away from Microsoft Office on January 1, 2007 if the ODF-compliant alternatives don't offer the sort of accessibility that those workers need at that time.  Two leading advocates for PWD accessibility -- advocates with the influence to sway a massive amount of opinion -- have acknowleged the promise of ODF and have said that they would give ODF their support once ODF-compliant solutions proved to be demonstrably acceptable.  Yet, at the Halloween Hearing in Massachusetts, two of the three people who spoke on behalf of PWDs (Bay State Council of Blind president Jerry Barrier and  Boston Disability Policy Consortium treasurer John Linsky) failed to acknowledge ODF's potential. In fact, not only didn't they acknowlege ODF's potential the way Charlson and Chong have, they also failed to emphasize (Conveniently? Let's hope not) the serious shortcoming in Office-based solutions that have been the bain of technology and information accessibility for PWDs: the fact that programs like JAWS have to be rewritten every time Microsoft upgrades its software.  Barrier and Linsky also intermingled open source and the OpenDocument format as though the viability of accessible open source solutions was a central issue when it was not.

The infamous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke comes to mind: What we have here is a failure to communicate.  Whereas the inadequate accessibility in ODF-compliant software would officially trigger an postponement of the ODF policy's 1/1/2007 implementation date, influential advocates of PWD accessibility are adopting positions and testifying to powerful politicians as though no such trigger exists and those  politicians have thusly turned the issue into a political football.

So, I wrote back to Chong.  I took his issues one at a time because, as someone who has been reporting on the situation, I need to stick to some baseline of understanding when interviewing all involved parties and his letter deviated from that baseline.  In an effort to re-establish that baseline and to see if that changed his understanding of the issues, his position or both, my letter can be broken down in to four sections.

The first of these dealt with his intermingling of open source and ODF.  It sounded remarkably similar to the testimony offered by Barrier and Linsky during the Halloween hearing where, to anyone who didn't know any better, it sounded as though PWDs would be solely dependent on open source developers to make sure that ODF-compliant solutions met certain accessibility standards. This was not my understanding and deviates from the baseline of assumptions in my reporting to date.  In my reply to Chong, I wrote:

Open source advocates would no doubt favor any technology that stands a chance of undermining Microsoft. However, other than the fact that OpenOffice.org happens to be an open source application that supports the open document format and the fact that other open source programs such as the recently revealed WikiCalc from spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin can choose to support the open document format as well, the open document format has nothing to do with open source.  Nothing. Developers of proprietary software are just as free to support the OpenDocument Format as are developers of open source software as well as developers of a new breed of software known as software as a service or SaaS.  OpenOffice.org is simply one application that supports the OpenDocument Format. Sun's StarOffice which is a non-open source superset of Openoffice will support it as well.  So too will Corel's Wordperfect (not open source), IBM Lotus Workplace (not open source) and the Writely Web-based word processor (not open source).  So, for the community of those with disabilities to be heard on this issue, it must dispense with the casual intermingling of the term open source with OpenDocument. It unnecessarily distracts those who are paying attention from the core issues.  Even Microsoft has suggested that it's Office XML Reference Schema file format is compatible with open source yet the two never get mixed up there.  So, why use the term open source to cloud the issue when all we are talking about is another file format that's equally supportable by applications and services of any type?

The second section of my letter explored Chong's explanation of how its the third party provided accessibility solutions that make Microsoft's Office accessible, how those solutions depend on documented and undocumented interfaces in Office and Windows, how those solutions break when Microsoft goes through an upgrade cycle. In this part of my reply, I openly wonder why these points weren't made during the hearing (they certainly would have been relevant) and whether or not that status quo is really worth protecting when there's a new technology like ODF that could fundamentally improve the forward and backward compatibilty of "accessible solutions."  Here's what I said:

The second point I'd like to make is that your statements are very very different from the ones presented by three representatives of the disabled community during the Oct 31 hearing.  A few of your points would have been very relevant and I'm certain that those who spoke at the hearing were aware of them.  For example, the point you making about the precarious balance that exists between the specialized accessibility software and Microsoft Office was never mentioned. Nor was the fact that every time Microsoft upgrades it's software, the accessibility software must be completely re-engineered to keep up. I'm sure that each time the cat catches its tail, only to have the tail eventually slip away, that it's the work of a few heroic people that catch the tail again. But isn't there a point at which the tail catchers realize that this is a futile effort that stands in the way of true innovation in accessibility?  I've been a technology journalist for 15 years now.  In that time, it didn't matter who the vendor was: if a vendor came out with a product that wasn't backwards compatible with the ones before it, they were hammered out of the market.  The fact that Microsoft keeps breaking backward compatibility and forcing heroic developers to creatively exploit both documented and undocumented interfaces suggests to me that the company hasn't looked at continuity in accessibility as a problem that it's responsible for solving.

I don't mean to suggest that the OpenDocument format solves your problems. But it's clear to me that at least half the battle you're currently experiencing has to do with the fact that one company gets to decide what it will and won't do for the disability community. And so far, that company's track record, dating back to the IE4 and Windows 95 debacles, doesn't have a very good track record. At least with OpenDocument format, you have an opportunity to insert yourself into a multi-party stewarded process that stands a chance at breaking that chain.  Just look at what has happened to date. Microsoft is actually using its hardly fought for advantage in accessibility as a leverage point to maintain the status quo in Massachusetts.  What has it done to say it's going to answer the clarion call from those with disabilities?

First, the statement about Microsoft's use of its advantage in accessibility as a leverage point to keep ODF at bay in Massachusetts is an opinion, but a widely held one at that. In looking for reasons why Microsoft can't or won't support ODF, only Microsoft has suggested that such support is either impractical or implausible for the company with nearly $5 billion in the bank and that has supported so many third party formats before. The reference to IE4 and Windows 95 refers back to the only time in history that I know of where a potential customer boycott (in that case, several states that were led by Massachusetts) forced Microsoft to capitulate by reintroducing certain product features that the new versions of its software dropped.  They were accessibility features (I describe that boycott in more detail here).  And, according to Chong's and Charlson's own assessments, Microsoft has historically played and still plays a minimal role in the accessibility that PWDs currently have.  For example, for more than a decade, despite incremental improvements in the native accessibility to Office and Windows, real accessibility has and still ultimately requires very expensive third party products. According to Charlson for example, the average cost for the top selling configuration of JAWS costs $1200.  In other words, accessibility to Office costs more than three times as much as Staples' $330 retail price of Office Standard edition itself. 

It's additional costs like that that unfortunately make businesses loathe to hire PWDs (even the best estimates cite only a 30 percent employment rate amongst PWDs). Given Microsoft's resources, it's clear that the company could have done more in its market dominant Office and Windows to improve the accessibility and lives of PWDs.  But, instead, it allowed excessive cost and breakage of third party products from one version of its software to next -- conditions that the broader market of technology buyers would never tolerate -- to persist for years.  I wouldn't for a minute question the state of the state as it has been described by Charlson, Chong (and those who testified at the Halloween Hearing) that currently, the best there is in terms of accessibility is an Office-anchored solution.  That's clearly the reality of the situation.

But what I was having difficulty with, particularly in testimony but also in Chong's letter, was how a status quo in terms of accessibility that's nothing to write home about was being so staunchly defended without frank commentary about how so much more needs to be done and that if Microsoft wasn't willing to do it, that maybe those behind ODF might.  After all, with IBM, Sun, Novell, HP, Corel, and Adobe behind ODF and with accessibility now being one of the lynchpins to it acceptance (not just in Massachusetts, but everywhere), surely there's an opportunity for PWDs to to take advantage of their newfound popularity.  The next passage in my reply to Chong sizes up that opportunity and asks point blank if that's an opportunity he's interested in seizing:

Meanwhile, with the backing of IBM, Novell, Sun, Corel, Nokia, Oracle, Adobe, Computer Associates and Red Hat, the OASIS consortium will be establishing a technical committee that's solely decidicated to the accessibility of OpenDocument Formats.  When was the last time you had a group of company's like that fighting for your approval? And where is Microsoft?  The company that, according to the the people I've spoken with from your community, could with one decision make OpenDocument formatted documents just as accessible as its own.  One decision. Does the disability community really want to exchange its soul the way it did on Oct 31 for that sort of behavior? Or, would you rather sieze the opportunity to break the vicious cat and tail chain by demanding a central role in the new technical committee?  It's your choice Curtis. The opportunity for the breakthrough and the respect you've been waiting for is finally within your reach. On Oct 31, that opportunity got kicked in the teeth and look what happened.  The opportunity came back evenstronger. What are you going to do about it?

Here, I'm just calling it like I see it.  As I said before, something didn't sit right with me about how the testimony didn't address what the PWD community really needs in terms of accessibility, let alone whether or not ODF finally represented an opportunity to address those needs.  Granted, the senator presiding over the hearing didn't ask.  But, those who testified weren't restricted to answering the senator's questions.  There was ample opportunity for free form testimony.  Yet these details never came up.  Some have suggested that the PWD community's position is so one-sided that it had to have been "bought."  To test that theory, I had to challenge Chong with an opportunity that was too good to pass up.  But to be extra sure, I made sure there was no question in Chong's mind that this was indeed a major opportunity for him and the PWDs he represents.  I wrote:

In your letter, you said "The National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science would give its enthusiastic support to the OpenDocument Format once we are satisfied that our concerns with respect to nonvisual access have been addressed." Why was this not mentioned at all on Oct 31? Why instead was Windows and Office pitched as the end all and be all of accessibility that OpenDocument solutions could never achieve?  Why did no one mention that the community would be willing to switch once the solutions you seek were proven to meet or exceed your expectations?

I have been told by Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn and general counsel Linda Hamel that unless these same conditions are met, that the January 1, 2007 implementation date would be postponed until the point at which those concerns are addressed. I looked them in the eye. They are equally concerned that the date is an unrealistic one.  Now, I'm not going to belittle the history here. 

From what I can tell, it does sound as though the disability community was largely ignored during this process. Shame on them. I mean that. But now Curtis, you hold the cards and you've got the attention of the most powerful companies in the industry. You finally have the audience you need to actually change the world.  You have fought hard and endured so much to get to this point. Once again Curtis, what will you do with this opportunity? Will you sieze it in a way that can ultimately improve the quality of life for millions of people who are deprived of the access to technology and information they deserve?  Or are you going carry that chip on your shoulder for having been ingored and fight for the status quo that, as far as I can tell, is hardly worth fighting for. Particularly if you're not being asked to give it up until the new breed
of solutions demonstrably meets your standards. Let bygones be bygones Curtis.  This moment comes along once in a lifetime, if that.  You are in a position to name the terms.  You stand nothing to lose by doing it.

In the last section of my letter, I clarify my position.  From my point of view, Chong is another of ZDNet's readers; the type of reader that I've always stood up for when it comes questionable vendor behavior; the type of reader to whom I have routinely and strongly recommended the adoption of open standards in lieu of proprietary technologies.  Not only do I explain my motives, but I volunteer to put him and the pro-ODF vendors into the same room where I, as a journalist covering the issue, can really see if these vendors are as committed to accessibility as they say they are.  After all, if I'm willing to test Chong's resolve, then I should be equally willing to test the promise of some of ODF's strongest proponents.  If either party walks away from the table, then a hidden agenda is found and all is not as it seems.  If not, then the breakthrough is newsworthy.  Here's how I concluded:

Finally, to be honest, I could care less about the fortunes of the big players here... IBM, Sun, Red Hat, or whoever. I have villified all of them at one time or another and would be happy to do it again every time they do something that's not in the best interests of my readers.  I have long extolled the virtues of standards and how they put technology buyers in control.  I have strongly advised our readers to stay away from proprietary technologies including proprietary extensions to open standards and crucified vendors every time they try to lock ZDNet's readers in.  It's the reason I've won one of the few President's Awards for Journalism from the American National Standards Institute.  The minute you end up married to a proprietary technology, you end up stuck. Look at the very reason you cannot easily switch to another solution right now.  It's the marriage of your specialized solutions to the proprietary technology.

So, you must understand where I'm coming from. I think Microsoft makes a fine solution. I'm using it right now as I write this email. So, in ODF, I see just such an opportunity for buyers to take control of a part of their technology that one company has had complete control of.  It controls the security of your technology. The stability of it.  The cost of it. And for you especially, the accessibility of it. To the extent that I've always stood up for readers first, you now have my attention and I will stand up for you too. If you want me to bear witness to your attempts to insert yourself into the process -- in other words sit side by side with you as you convey your concerns, your requirements, and your terms to guys like IBM's Bob Sutor or Sun's Jonathan Schwartz, I can be there. I can even make the meetings happen.  And if anybody is being unreasonable, I will call it like I see it.  They know that.  They fear that.  I answer to one constituency and one constituency only. My readers.

You call the shots. You come up with the requirements and the road map (some of it is already in your email to me). You tell them what you need. Even a budget if you need that to make it someone's full time job to monitor the progress.  You have my ear.  If they screw up, back out, or tell you to go to hell, then the pen is my sword.  They can live by it.  They can die by it.  Like I said before, what have you got to lose? The worst that can happen is that the status quo stays. That's no different than what you have today. The best that can happen is you move a mountain that was once immovable. Carpe Diem Curtis. Sieze the day. 

Next came Chong's amazing reply and it's perfectly clear that he has no agenda.  As far as I can tell, he is truly a champion of the PWDs he represents and this could be a newsworthy moment for both sides.  Here's how he answered:

David: 

Let me say at the outset that every point you have made is valid.  I am not prepared to articulate a full response right now, but suffice it to say that I agree with what you have said and take seriously your call for us to participate in the effort to make the OpenDocument format accessible.  Our access to information should not be riding on as tenuous a thread as it is today.

I apologize for intermixing the two terms OpenDocument and Open Source.  I should not have done that.  In this instance, I will confine my discussion to ODF.

The NFB in Computer Science is ready to take the next step, and if Massachusetts' recognition of the unrealistic nature of the January 1 date can be made "official," I would be pleased.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong, President
National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science

So now -- to you MA ITD CIO Peter Quinn and to you IBM's Bob Sutor and Sun's Jonathan Schwartz (both of whom have blogged about this issue) and the rest of you vendors that are behind ODF and to you OASIS OpenDocument Technical committee -- the ball is officially in your court.  Mr. Chong may not represent the entire community of PWDs, but his influence is so great that a meeting of the minds could be a breakthrough.

To Mr. Quinn:you must officially explain why and how the January 1, 2007 ODF implementation date is actually flexible in such a way that state employees with disabilities will never be asked to do their jobs with inadequate tools.  This of course requires an umistakable way of recognizing inadequacy as well as minimally acceptable adequacy when it comes to accessibility. 

Mr. Sutor and Mr. Schwartz: the burden is now on your companies to work with Mr. Chong and Mr. Charlson (who told me via phone he'd be happy to participate in the process as well) to clearly, and in no uncertain terms, define what the minimal acceptable level of accessibility is in order for a productivity suite to meet the requirements of PWDs. I know that you vendors recently discussed the issue in Armonk, but that discussion didn't include the most important people.  I'd also strongly recommend inviting the World Wide Web Consoritum's director of Web accessibility Judy Brewer and Massachusetts Office on Disability director Myra Berloff to participate.  In her testimony during the Halloween Hearing, Berloff stated that her office had started working with MA ITD to"work on specific or to identify specific accessibility needs for people with disabilities."

To keep the test realistic, it should also factor in the degree to which the Office-anchored solutions are accessible is today. After all, that's what is currently being held up as the gold standard. Plus, it should try fill in any major shortcomings of that existing state of the art (such as the way forward compatibility breaks each time the underlying software is modified).  Beyond that, additional criteria should serve as a roadmap for ODF's continued evolution. 

This "test" -- more like a document or a checklist -- should be developed at the vendors' cost.  Not Chong's or Charleson's.  I know that Sun's chief accessibility architect Peter Korn has already articulated some of the criteria in a recent blog of his.  That's a good start.  But again, the discussion needs to include the people it concerns most.  The stakes are obviously very high and the vendors stand a lot gain from the support of PWD advocates like these two men.  If you're that serious about accessibility, putting this sort of skin in the game will be chicken feed to you.

Back to Mr. Quinn, to make sure there's no ambiguity about what sort of accessibility will trigger the implementation of the ODF policy, then you should agree to use that test as the trigger point for implementation of your ODF policy.  If on January 1, 2007, the shipping ODF-complaint solutions don't pass the test, then the date must be moved to a more realistic date.  As a part of your official statement, I think you need to include something in your official statement that acknowledges that accessibility will be determined by a mutually established test developed with input from you, PWD advocates not limited to Chong and Charlson, and the vendors.  

Finally, by now, you're probably saying "Hey David, as a reporter, why don't you just take this proposal to the other parties and report on the outcome of those interviews?"  That's a reasonable question.  I think the blogosphere creates a unique opportunity.  Those interviews could get bogged down in a back and forth discussion that could take months.  And sure, guys like Sutor and Schwartz can respond to me directly and I can report on that.  But they have blogs and they can respond there as well.  Why not take advantage of the efficiency of the blogosphere while making the process as transparent as possible? There's no need for me to own this news or beat other journalists to the punch.  My job is to speak for ZDNet's readers as I've done here.  I don't speak for the vendors. By publicly putting the pressure on them,  my job is done.  Now comes the opportunity for vendors to speak for themselves and for the world to see.  Are they for real on their promise of accessibility or not?  What I've proposed here is not unreasonable.  Whatever they say, that's news.  And that is also my job as a journalist.  To flush out the news.  News that belongs to everybody. Especially those with disabilities.

Topic: Microsoft

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28 comments
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  • Freedom Scientific and Jaws

    Freedom Scientific and Jaws are about to become casualties of this whole issue. By not jumping up and immediately proclaiming support for ODF they are
    seriously jepordizing their business. Now you have thousands if not tens of thousands of developers focused on one goal, creating a alternative to JAWS. I have not doubt that in a extremely short period of time we are going to see a open source alternative to JAWS that supports both odf and doc formats. I not sure that supporting odf in jaws is going to help their business as it is already likely to late.

    The days of vendors not supplying what is asked for is over, either supply what is asked for or be consumed by tens of thousands of programmers focused on replacing your prized product.
    jjanks
    • Wrong players

      [i]Now you have thousands if not tens of thousands of developers focused on one goal, creating a alternative to JAWS. I have not doubt that in a extremely short period of time we are going to see a open source alternative to JAWS that supports both odf and doc formats.[/i]

      Too late, or maybe the wrong question. JAWS is an MSOffice add-on which doesn't (itself) care about the file formats. On the other hand it's about as dependent on MSOffice as mistletoe is on its host tree.

      Meanwhile, the open-source accessability efforts have concentrated on providing accessability infrastructure that can be used by all sorts of applications. Not very helpful, of course, if Microsoft doesn't take advantage of those features in MSOffice.

      In other words, there's no real competition here.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Not very likely

      Although this requirement for PWD access to software is now in the limelight, I, as a programmer, have very little understanding of what PWDs actually need or the equipment (braille systems etc.) required to even begin coding.

      The companies referenced do not need to support ODF at all, they just need to pick a player that will allow them to stay in business. If that player also supports ODF, then they get to bid with everyone else.

      Lets face it, they have a small niche market and the biggest deployment is MS Office. Now the deployment of other software is a much smaller chunk of the market. If those vendors want to team up and provide standard APIs for the PWD companies to code to (which keeps their maintenance costs down) then maybe that will be incentive for them to code to other platforms.

      It really will depend on how modular the existing code is and just how tightly coupled it is to MS Office. If there is a point where an abstraction layer could be introduced, then possibly the software could be able to target multiple office productivity suites.

      Based on the reviews I have seen of Office 12, they are probably looking at a complete rewrite of the current interfaces anyway, so even MS won't be a player in MA as an upgrade to Office 12 will have to wait for the PWD vendors. Or is this only a factor if they choose an unencumbered data format to store their data in?

      So even if there are thousands of developers thinking about how to support this market, how many of us actually can? I would need far more resources than just my comptuer to help. This effort will require a very close relationship between the PWD group and the vendor/open source group wanting to supply the solution. It is not a matter of open source vs closed source. After all this is a document storage format we are talking about, not a software development model.
      douglasids
      • This is a framework issue

        For the most part, I agree that it will be hard for us 'average developers' to create applications that account for PWD. At least in my company, practically all custom applications are now web apps. That means that we should be coding all web apps according to the W3C's Web Accessablity Initiative. (http://www.w3.org/WAI/). This is compatable with the Section 508 guidlelines of the US government. This compatablity is easy to achieve with a framework like Zope. It is actually rather difficult to achieve with VisualStudio 2003 and .Net 1.1 (or prior versions), but this improves significantly with VisualStudio 2005 and .Net 2.0.

        In the case of 'traditional' applications, it is important that the frameworks be chosen to facilitate PWD. The Qt and KDE frameworks are working toward this end. The upcoming Qt 4.0 and KDE 4.0 frameworks will offer some substantial built-in support for PWD. KDE has speech reading for text, PDF and web pages, for example. Their unified style guidelines mean that all KDE applications should use the user defined styles, so font size and color schemes are universally applied to any application that conforms with KDE's coding standards. By placing these accessability features in the framework, all of the applications will benefit, even if they are not specifically coded for PWD.

        So, the solution for developers is to choose your frameworks with PWD in mind and to code to the framework guidelines.
        shis-ka-bob
        • Message has been deleted.

          myfevertoy
  • Aren't you making a substantial promise...

    ... on behalf of a group of companies?

    Quoting:
    You call the shots. You come up with the requirements and the road map (some of it is already in your email to me). You tell them what you need. Even a budget if you need that to make it someone's full time job to monitor the progress. You have my ear. If they screw up, back out, or tell you to go to hell, then the pen is my sword. They can live by it. They can die by it.

    JAWS is apparently one of a number of essential accessibility products. It's expensive, probably because it's elaborate.

    From your comments, you appear to be promising that these companies will prepare free (or at least substantially cheaper) versions of JAWS and all other accessibility software in order to replace the proprietary versions.

    And that these will be made available in Office equivalents, and continuously updated -- for free, presumably -- in response to any changes.
    This responds to the (expectable) problem that JAWS and the other programs must be updated in response to a Microsoft update.


    Do you really want to offer all that on behalf of a group of large companies?

    On a related point:

    You have advocated the end of proprietary software profits on behalf of those readers who agree with you, but this attempt to send a whole (small) segment of the software industry into bankruptcy and unemployment has a very tight deadline.

    If your program is carried out, at least set a time frame that will allow companies to invent new products, or employees to fill out the unemployment paperwork and begin their job searches.

    You owe them that much at least.
    Anton Philidor
    • As I said

      Had Freedom Scientific jumped up and said hey we are willing to fully support odf and got to work they still had a chance at survival. They had a nich market that nobody cared to play in. Now however there are tens of thousands of programmers with JAWS dead in their sights.
      jjanks
      • Take them a while to write...

        ... a replacement for a program that elaborate. And I doubt that JAWS is the only program that will have to be replaced. And all of those programs will have to work together.

        And then the replacement program will have to connect with not just one suite like Office, but any number. And each of those products is undergoing changes even now. At least one is still in beta.

        So the project you mention is going to have a substantial number of people involved in ongoing maintenance.

        All this is so daunting that a company which might have been able to increase sales by porting their application couldn't justify it, apparently.

        I wouldn't underestimate the amount of work to which you've committed your "tens of thousands" of programmers, and the project managers who'll have to herd the cats.
        Anton Philidor
    • My promise is to ZDNet's readers

      Based on the facts I've gathered so far, my sense is that People With Disabilities (PWDs) have largely been ignored by the technology community. Accessibility could be so much better than it is, and here, we have the PWD community holding something up that's really nothing to write home to Mom about as the gold standard. What's wrong with this picture. I'm not promising anything. Clearly, the proODF vendors need the backing of guys like Chong and Carlson to get politicians like MA's Senator Marc Pacheco off their back. So, what I'm suggesting (not promising) is that instead of trading their influence for the status quo which isn't that great, why not trade it for a promise of help. This isn't much different than, say, telling some vendor you won't buy their products unless they do XYZ. So, why shouldn't Chong, Carlson, and others be able to set the conditions now that they're the ones to please. I speak for end-users (the readers of ZDNet). I don't believe any of what I've suggested to be unreasonable for a vendor. Particular since those vendors have SO much more to gain from ODF adoption than just the business of PWDs. Also, by now, I'm guessing that collectively, the amount of resources that would have to be collectively provided by proODF vendors to meet these very reasonable terms pales in comparison to the money they've spent so far dealing with the political process. Why not spend that sort of money where it really needs to be spent: on the technology. Where it can benefit disabled people, making them more employable than they are today, giving them more access to technology and information than they have today, and ultimately improving their quality of life.

      And, if this forces companies like Freedom Scientific to be more competitive, or put themselves up for sale so that IBM, Sun, Adobe, Apple or some other vendor can build on the work they've already done, that's how the market works. I think it's ridiculous that one has to pay $1200 to make it easier to use a a $300 product. Again, I don't represent the best interests of vendors and their employees. I represent the best interests of technology buyers (ZDNet's audience). And PWDs are definitely a part of that audience.

      As a side note, two years ago, at a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)meeting in Cambridge, MA, the W3C's head of PR Janet Daly introduced me to Judy Brewer who heads up the Web Accessibility Initiative. Speaking of how important it is to such a wide range of people, Judy asked me to spend more of ZDNet's editorial on accessibility. So, Judy, I'm sorry it took this long. But now, hopefully, this is the sort of attention that will result in some serious technological breakthroughs for you and all of your constituents.

      db
      dberlind
      • Broad Brush

        [i]Based on the facts I've gathered so far, my sense is that People With Disabilities (PWDs) have largely been ignored by the technology community.[/i]

        That's a pretty broad brush there, David. I have to point out that both KDE (http://accessibility.kde.org/) and GNOME (http://developer.gnome.org/projects/gap/) have made major commitments to accessability for several years now. Back in 2002 (!) the GNOME project won the Helen Keller Achievement Award for its accessability architecture (http://gnomedesktop.org/node/648). Both projects make PWD access an integral part of their interface design guidelines.

        OpenOffice.org on Solaris and Linux doesn't [i]need[/i] JAWS, thank you: the features are built-in and don't have to be added on.

        Hey, the Linux kernel even has assistive technology built into its architecture.

        These are not, I propose to you, signs of being "ignored by the technology community."
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Long way to go

          Spend an hour or two on the phone with some of the people who are most knowledgable on the topic. Most of the work that's been done has been to serve the needs of the visually impaired. And even they're not being served as well as they could be. Beyond that, there are entire classes of PWDs who need assistive technologies that respond to a nod of the head, a shrug of the shoulder, or their breath. I'm not discounting the work that has already been done. As you and Peter Korn point out, there have been some great advancements (particularly when it comes to divorcing document accessibility from the application and marrying to the format instead). But as good as the work that's been done is, it's barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done. It really does. I have really developed a newfound respect for PWDs after going through this entire experience.

          db
          dberlind
          • Carrot and Stick

            [i]But as good as the work that's been done is, it's barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done. It really does. I have really developed a newfound respect for PWDs after going through this entire experience.[/i]

            I hope I wasn't portraying the non-MS side of things as a solved problem; there's obviously lots of work to be done there.

            However, I don't think that the efforts that (for instance) the GNOME team have put in deserve to be called "largely been ignored by the technology community," either.

            If you totally discount the efforts that people make (especially when they don't have to) do you really expect them to try even harder?
            Yagotta B. Kidding
      • When you raise expectations...

        ... guarantee a hearing, and threaten consequences if compliance is not obtained, you've come as close to making a promise as you can without owning the pro-ODF companies.

        Haven't you done each of those in this quote:

        You call the shots. You come up with the requirements and the road map (some of it is already in your email to me). You tell them what you need. Even a budget if you need that to make it someone's full time job to monitor the progress. You have my ear. If they screw up, back out, or tell you to go to hell, then the pen is my sword. They can live by it. They can die by it.

        There'd be no reason for all this discussion and effort if the proODF companies could be relied upon to say No. You're implying that Yes is a more likely answer.


        In your response, you observe:
        So, what I'm suggesting (not promising) is that instead of trading their influence for the status quo which isn't that great, why not trade it for a promise of help. This isn't much different than, say, telling some vendor you won't buy their products unless they do XYZ. So, why shouldn't Chong, Carlson, and others be able to set the conditions now that they're the ones to please.

        Well, a "promise of help" isn't working software. The best way of setting conditions, I'll argue, is to look for an iron-clad guarantee that people with disabilities will be able to do their jobs the day ODF becomes policy.

        Let others deal with the consequences of that guarantee. If that means staying with Office, then that's what happens.

        The alternative is an attempt to gain advocates for ODF, and I don't see that as having much direct value to people with disabilities.


        You also note:
        And, if this forces companies like Freedom Scientific to be more competitive, or put themselves up for sale so that IBM, Sun, Adobe, Apple or some other vendor can build on the work they've already done, that's how the market works. I think it's ridiculous that one has to pay $1200 to make it easier to use a a $300 product.

        Freedom Scientific has probably examined the costs of porting to all the software packages using or potentially using ODF, and then keeping up with the changes.
        Given the hostile PR they could expect, the issue was probably not close.

        So a buyer would have to obtain a company which is probably not very profitable in order to do something known to decrease profits in order to compete with Microsoft in a product category in which none of these companies has a realistic competitor.

        I suppose the SEC wouldn't be interested in this kind of poor judgement on the part of a public corporation, and management is usually well insulated from shareholders.
        But I do have enough faith that management is interested enough in their bonuses and the company's bottom line that they would have difficulty justifying such an expensive losing action.
        Annoying Microsoft is worth only so much, and mostly in PR terms.



        And would you say that you represent the ZDNet readers who believes in proprietary software as providing for profits and thus secure employment? And who see the possibility of uniquely valuable software functionality, proving the limits of standards?

        You represent readers as you conceive of them and their views. But what about those who don't share your preconceptions?

        Once a group of Indian Chiefs were given a tour of the East of the US, and shown all the cities, with mile after mile of people and resources. It turned them into advocates of peace.
        If you considered the number of those who do not share your views, that might have an influence on your advocacy, as well.
        Anton Philidor
        • Promises, gurantees, etc.

          Whether it's Sony installing rootkits or vendors not stepping up to the plate on accessibility, part of my job is to report when vendors don't serve the needs of IT buyers (ZDNet's readers). I'd argue that there's not enough of that type of reporting going on right now. In this particular situation, there have been all sorts of accusations of hidden agendas. So, if you're looking for a promise then here's one: I will always pursue the truth. If that means calling someone's bluff or putting the people who are at odds with each other in the same room and reporting on the outcome, then that's what I'll do. If the "test" is reasonable and the vendors balk, that's newsworthy. Why balk? If the vendors offer the forum and PWD advocates decline the opportunity, then something's not right. Sometimes, getting to the truth requires you to get the fingerpointers in the same room. The vendors can say no if they want. But at least the truth comes out and I think that's worthwhile. If, by what you're saying, it's the meeting with me there that forces them to say yes, well, it isn't me that's forcing them to say yes. It's the truth. It's the no emperors can bring there clothes to such a meeting. The clothes are off. The truth is there.

          As far as the guarantee you speak of, my job, in representing the interests of ZDNet's readers first, is help IT buyers get the most out of their investment. Sometimes, if I see something that stands in the way of that happening, I will speak up (or "write-up" as it may be) about it. In this case, once all parties involved decide to move forward, the missing link is still the definition of accessibility. There needs to be an agreement over what that is. What is it on 1/1/2007. What about 1/1/2009? The gold standard for accessibility changes over time. It's a moving target. There has to be something in writing so that no one is left trying to obtain the unobtainable. As with any business initiative, the goals have to be measurable or no one will know when they've achieved them. So, I agree that there should be an iron-clad guarantee and it need to include a defintion of the accessibility target (in no uncertain terms) that must be hit before PWDs are forced to worth with a solution.

          As far as your next bit that concludes with annoying Microsoft.... I'm not paying attention to what annoys Microsoft. I'm paying attention to what solves problems for ZDNet's readers. I recognize there are multiple means to those ends. I'm sure that there's one that makes the most sense for all those involved.

          Regarding your question on ZDNet readers who favor proprietary software... bear in mind here that proprietary software can support open standards. This isn't about proprietary vs. open source. This is about specifications like file formats and network protocols. More often than not, open standards like HTTP, HTML, and XML have proven to be the better course for IT buyers than proprietary alternatives. Who runs IPX, SMB, or VinesIP anymore? TCP/IP won. So, I'm not out on some weird limb when I say open standards are better for you. But if you would rather use IPX when IP will do, you're entitled to. With some readers, there will be differences of opinion. Just because I don't agree doesn't mean I'm not looking out for their best interests. Very often, they change my mind. This isn't one of those times. Yet.

          db
          dberlind
          • I like this approach better.

            Now you're not predicting any outcome or offering any reassurances. Your suggestion is only to put the (potential) vendors in a room with representatives of a user group to see how each responds.

            Such a meeting is unlikely to elicit an immediate, specific guarantee from the vendors, and as much might be accomplished by preparation of a memo identifying the needs of persons with disabilities. But it can occur without unrealistic expectations on anyone's part.

            You wrote:
            If that means calling someone's bluff or putting the people who are at odds with each other in the same room and reporting on the outcome, then that's what I'll do.
            If the "test" [meeting requirements of persons with disabilities] is reasonable and the vendors balk, that's newsworthy. Why balk?
            If the vendors offer the forum and PWD advocates decline the opportunity, then something's not right.
            Sometimes, getting to the truth requires you to get the fingerpointers in the same room.
            The vendors can say no if they want. But at least the truth comes out and I think that's worthwhile.
            [Re-paragraphed.]

            The decision to attend the meeting or not doesn't seem decisive about any truth. But it would show an attempt to cooperate.


            You also agreed that the key is "an iron-clad guarantee" that people with disabilities can do their jobs after the implementation of ODF, adding that the requirements should be specific.

            Quoting:
            So, I agree that there should be an iron-clad guarantee and it need to include a defintion of the accessibility target (in no uncertain terms) that must be hit before PWDs are forced to worth with a solution.

            I'm thinking about the situations in which the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.
            This process would consist of advocates answering the question, What should software for persons with disabilities accomplish?
            That is probably a very time consuming question, and differences of opinion are not unlikely.

            Perhaps, to avoid negotiations, the principle should be that no one ends worse than he is now.
            That would mean defining the functionality of existing software in common use, and using that as the guideline.


            As far as the purpose of ODF is concerned, the public companies have two possible goals for spending substantial amounts of money: increasing their own profits or discomfitting a competitor.
            Unless you can suggest a way that selling ODF will make substantially more than any other strategy, that alternate is unlikely.
            So this is about making problems for Microsoft, such as reducing the use of Microsoft's new formats to prevent the company from gaining as much as it might from Office's new capabilities.

            Any other reason would mean the money expended did not contribute to the bottom line, and so an accusation of mismanagement of a company would be justified.


            Standards and their abuses and disadvantages are a separate topic.
            Sometimes a common standard is necessary, and sometimes it is more a restriction than an advantage.
            Sometimes, an advantage for a company is also an advantage for users.

            So, though I acknowledge good points can be made on both sides, actions you take on your views do not advocate my views, and I don't think they must be to my advantage.

            I appreciate your sincerity and attentions.
            I will observe, though, that to decide what's best for me without my participation is elitism rather than consideration for me.

            When you advocate for a position I oppose, you are not doing anything for me. Though you may think your recommendation to my benefit, I reserve the right to believe that it is not.

            So I'd like to say simultaneously Thanks! and Please don't!



            An observation: the story concerns an Emperor who believed he was buying especially fine new clothes when in fact he was being fooled into paying a lot for nothing at all.
            When the nude Emperor marched through his capital, many of the townspeople complimented him on his wonderful garments. But one small boy shouted, The Emperor is naked!
            The Emperor realized the truth of the shout, and the clothing salesman was in for a difficult time from the disillusioned Emperor.

            For a comparable situation, think of an open source programmer proud of his efforts until a small boy shouts, But nobody is being paid!
            The programmer, realizing he was damaging his own or someone else's employment prospects, wrote a scathing email to Richard Stallman, and resolved never to contribute to an open source project again. ;-)
            Anton Philidor
        • Raised Expectations?

          Lets give everybody credit for being an adult shall we. This
          includes taking responsibility for our own raised expectations.

          When did this stop being about open access to the alphabet and
          start being about the machinations of the marketplace? This is
          the Public sector. Those of you who object to it still have to live
          with it. You've agreed to assign public funds to retain those
          pesky inalienable rights. David Berlind has reframed the
          argument and acted as a catalyst in a capacity as a blogger. This
          is blogging at it's best. It might look like journalism, but it isn't.
          It's public discourse and democracy on the hoof. You have equal
          ability to influence with a well placed cogent argument. At the
          very least you can influence the influential.

          The fist step in a republic built on ideas is to have some ideas.
          Knee jerk reactions to market forces are not an adequate
          response. Our public ideals brought our marketplace into being
          and these seminal ideas of universal access exist within that
          higher domain. They have to be born and galvinized within a the
          public agenda. The code serves the idea, not the other way
          around. If we can't pull our thumbs out and get it done the right
          way, believe me, we all lose, Microsoft included.
          Harry Bardal
      • Thanks

        Nice to see the alphabet has an advocate. The gold rush has to be
        seen as over by now. We have to settle down and start building.
        Visions of bread lines full of software engineers is just a tad
        melodramatic at this late stage. Access must be seen as, a right
        first, and this should be the argument any republic worth it's salt
        makes for itself. Implementation grows from that framework. The
        code, it's existance or lack of it, should not dictate the idea. The
        idea should dictate the code.
        Harry Bardal
  • As an alternative...

    ... to all the desolation and ruin, worth remembering that plug-ins for ODF in Office will probably exist.

    So if the primary purpose of ODF advocacy were not to attack Microsoft and proprietary software in general, this would not be a problem requiring a large investment of time or effort.
    Anton Philidor
  • The Platform and the Ecosystem

    This rather nicely illustrates the difference between a "platform" strategy and an "ecosystem" strategy.

    Microsoft has (praise it or damn it) dealt with accessability as an "ecosystem:" they make software that ignores accessability, then leave it to others to produce add-ons that fill in the holes. Big problem: this only provides accessability for applications covered by the add-ons and dramatically raises costs.

    I can't fault Microsoft's decision on this to put universal multimedia features a higher priority than diability access, but the fact remains (as you note) that MS' platform support is so poor that outfits like Freedom Scientific have to hack the OS to even make add-ons work.

    The other way to handle it is as a platform issue: accessability as a fundamental requirement. Peter Korn alludes to this at http://blogs.sun.com/roller/page/korn/20051113#minor_visual where he refers to the Unix, GNOME, and KDE accessability feature set. Basically, OpenOffice.org on *nix doesn't [b]need[/b] JAWS, because it can (and already does) tap into the platform support that is there for every application.

    In my less realistic fantasies, I sometimes imagine that MA-ITD responds to the demand for accessability on 1Jan07 by replacing not only MSOffice but MSWindows as well.

    Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Not just a journalist

    "Whatever they say, that's news. And that is also my job as a journalist. To flush out the news. News that belongs to everybody. Especially those with disabilities."

    Seems like you've crossed the line from journalism to making the news. You're not just reporting the news; you're a fervent proponent (based on your recent blogs concerning the MA ITD issue) of moving away from Office and toward alternatives. And here you are working with a representative of PWD to establish how Office alternatives can attain approval.

    I've got no problem with that per se, but don't pretend to be an impartial observer in all this. You're part of the process. You obviously feel strongly about MA adopting ODF; nothing wrong with that, but be honest and admit your partiality.

    One can't be both a participant and an impartial reporter on the same topic.

    Carl Rapson
    rapson