Should more public agencies heed Massachusetts' OpenDoc policy?

If there ever was a value statement from a public official regarding the reasons for moving to open standards, perhaps that statement came from Eric Kriss, Secretary of Administration & Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

If there ever was a value statement from a public official regarding the reasons for moving to open standards, perhaps that statement came from Eric Kriss, Secretary of Administration & Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  According to a Computer Reseller News report written by Paula Rooney:

Kriss emphasized, however, that the state is not moving to open standards for economic reasons but to protect the right of the public to open and free access to public documents for the foreseeable future. "What we've backed away from at this point is the use of a proprietary standard and we want standards that are published and free of legal encumbrances, and we don’t want two standards," Kriss said.

It's too bad the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't have the same foresight.  As fellow ZDNet blogger Paul Murphy points out, FEMA's online registration area for disaster aid is only accessible, according to FEMA's Web site, by Internet Explorer 6.  I confirmed the problem by going down FEMA's registration path, clicking on Register for Asssitance from this page, and sure enough, I was stopped dead in my tracks (I was using Firefox).  The IE6 requirement raises questions about the Federal government's own public access policy, particulary since IE6 isn't something that all of the public has on their computers (eg: Macs and Linux boxes). 

FEMA isn't alone in committing a public access faux pas.  The US Copyright Office just recently said it's moving forward with Oct. 24, 2005 as the launch date for its online preregistration system despite the revelation that it's not accessible to users of Safari, Opera, or Firefox.   According to a ZDNet news report, Netscape Navigator 7.0.2 is the only supported browser in addition to Internet Explorer.  Ironically, the preregistration system was developed by Siebel Systems -- a software company that isn't exactly Microsoft's biggest supporter now that Microsoft is going after Siebel's prized CRM market.

Going back to the CRN story (the headline reads "Microsoft Blasts Massachusetts' New XML Policy"), Microsoft's general manager for its Information Worker Business Strategy Alan Yates answered "No" when asked if support for OpenDocument was potentially in the cards for next version of Microsoft Office (currently referred to as Office 12).  Meanwhile, whereas the story notes that "If [the policy] goes into effect, IT systems integrators and solution providers would have to support the OpenDoc format in order to do business with the state," Kriss acknowledged (according to the same story) that if Microsoft doesn't budge on OpenDoc support, that Microsoft Office could be eliminated across Massachusetts' many state agencies.

My hunch is that there are plenty of government agencies, both domestic and foreign watching this one and that, in this game of chicken, Microsoft will not win.  Whether Massachusetts alone could end up breaking Microsoft's back remains to be seen.  Looking at the FEMA and US Copyright Office snafus, other government organizations could realize that they too are sacrificing equal access to documents and records (access that's mandated by law) through the use of proprietary document formats and network protocols.

If word gets out that Massachusetts is having a much easier time making the transition to OpenDoc than Microsoft is predicting,  then other governments will follow suit, and Microsoft will be left with no choice but to provide support for OpenDoc in its Office suite (in addition to the other formats it already plans to support).  Particularly when it realizes that once Office users start ditching Office, ditching Windows might not be that far behind (since Office is one of those products that's keeping people attached to Windows).

That said, if Microsoft does support OpenDoc in Office, I wouldn't be surprised if buyers get faced with two requirements in order to get that support.  First, they'll have to upgrade to Office 12.  Second, support for OpenDoc will come by way of a plug-in that comes at an additional cost.  If Microsoft is smart (and it is), the total out of pocket cost to customers will be reasonable when compared to what it might cost those same customers to throw Office out and start with something new that supports OpenDoc like StarOffice (and I mean all costs -- everything from acquisition to support contracts to training).


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