TechNews reported earlier this month that the Minnesota legislature is considering a bill that would require government agencies to use open data formats. The move comes on the heels of Massachusetts' much-fought over decision to adopt the Open Document Format.
Andrew Updegrove, an attorney supporting open formats, said the bill's definitions would be conducive to open source implementations of open standards. "The debate over open formats will now be ongoing in two U.S. states rather than one," he said in an e-mail. "If two states successfully adopt and implement open data format policies, other states will be more inclined to follow."
More recently TechNews followed up with a report that bill is gaining traction. The article extensively quotes a state employee who explains that the state is concerned with information being locked in proprietary formats.
"All information managed by the State must be in formats for which there are no royalty payments, human-readable documentation exists, and [which] new software can comprehend."
Although neither Microsoft, nor Adobe, nor the OASIS OpenDocument Format (ODF) are mentioned in the legislation, the problems of dealing with Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF -- both in widespread use in Minnesota state government offices -- are cited by Nesbitt.
In conducting a theoretical search of the Minnesota state Web site, Nesbitt observed that most of the results "come back as either HTML, PDF, or MS Word. The problem is that the latter two formats are owned by entities that could go out of business, charge significantly, make unannounced changes, sue others for creating similar technologies, act as a monopoly, or abort a product offering altogether. In those instances, there is very little the State could do about it."
Interestingly, governments may be more interested in open formats than in open source, although the distinction is not always clear. Putting aside the political pressure that Microsoft must have exerted on Linux, end users will be more attached to applications than to data formats. As long as they can use the apps they're used to, they're unlikely to care about the formats. If Microsoft will accomodate the states' very real needs on this front, they can easily keep their business.