Microsoft document formats gain Mass. favor

Proposed technical guidelines include Microsoft's Office Open XML on the list of "open format" standards.
Written by Martin LaMonica, Contributor
Massachusetts has proposed changing its standards policy to make room for Microsoft Office document formats.

The state's Information Technology Division on Monday posted a draft proposal, part of a periodic revision to its overall technical architecture, to its Web site where it will be under review until July 20.

If accepted, the policy update would list Office Open XML as acceptable "open formats" for use by executive-branch state agencies. Office Open XML, also referred to as Ecma-376, are the XML-based file formats in Office 2007 that Microsoft standardized at Ecma International late last year.

Another proposed change to the policy would make the most recent version of OpenDocument Format for Office Applications--another standardized document format--acceptable under the state's guidelines.

Massachusetts caused a stir among governments and the technology industry nearly two years ago when it mandated the use of "open formats" in desktop applications.

At that time, only OpenDocument Format, or ODF, met the state IT department's definition of an open standard, which was not supported in Microsoft Office.

Since then, however, Microsoft has submitted its Open XML file formats to Ecma, where they were certified as a standard. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which holds significant weight with governments around the world, is currently weighing whether to accept Office Open XML as a standard.

Using the "translator"
According to its latest policy proposal, Massachusetts' state agencies can now use applications that comply with Open XML file formats as well as ODF, PDF and other accepted standards.

"All agencies are expected to migrate away from proprietary, binary office document formats to open, XML-based office document formats. Microsoft Office 2003, currently deployed in the majority of agencies, will support the Open XML format through the use of the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack," according to the draft policy.

Bethann Pepoli, Massachusetts' acting chief information officer, said that state agencies will be able to choose which formats they create and save documents in.

But those agencies will be keeping its current application suite--Microsoft Office--on its 50,000 desktops because it's the only product that addresses the needs of people with disabilities, she said.

"The biggest objective is to make as many options as possible open to agencies," Pepoli said. "We feel like this is the best approach to getting all the agencies in the executive department to an XML-based document format--that's pretty much the motivator."

The Information Technology Division also lists the latest version of OpenDocument, which improves the accessibility of documents for people with disabilities, as an option for state agencies.

Because no applications that support OpenDocument natively offer sufficient accessibility support, the state has decided to use a "translator" that converts Microsoft Office documents to OpenDocument formats.

"Agencies will have the ability to use either ODF or Open XML with their current version of Microsoft Office by installing the Sun (Microsystems) converter along with the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack," according to the policy.

The choice of document standards by government customers has been marked by intense lobbying from Microsoft, IBM and others because document formats can affect desktop application purchases. Several government customers, particularly in Europe, have added OpenDocument to their list of approved standards or have started migrations to Microsoft Office alternatives that use OpenDocument.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft said it was pleased with the proposed Massachusetts policy changes.

"We support the Commonwealth's proposal to add Ecma Office Open XML File Formats to the list of approved standards, as this would give users the ability to choose the open file format standard that best serves their needs," said Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards.

IBM, for its part, made it clear that its employees intend to argue against the inclusion of Office Open XML. Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, noted that the Massachusetts draft policy characterizes Open XML as a format best for backward compatibility with Microsoft Office documents.

"We completely agree: ooXML looks backward, while ODF is an international ISO standard, and is forward looking. The public understands this, too, as nearly 15,000 people opposing ooXML have signed an online petition circulated by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. We look forward to seeing the public discussion in the Commonwealth," Sutor said in a statement.

Editorial standards