While Mass. takes the lead in open access, feds lock citizens into IE

David Berlind points out at Between the Lines that, while the state of Massachusett is immovably committed to the Open Document format - and will banish Microsoft Office from state agencies if Redmond refuses to support OpenDoc in new versions of Office - the federal government continues a policy of requiring citizens to use Microsoft Internet Explorer.

David Berlind points out at Between the Lines that, while the state of Massachusett is immovably committed to the Open Document format - and will banish Microsoft  Office from state agencies if Redmond refuses to support OpenDoc in new versions of Office - the federal government continues a policy of requiring citizens to use Microsoft Internet Explorer. David writes:

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.

No word yet on what system FEMA is using that requires IE but the Copyright Office is using Siebel. The feds ought to take seriously what's driving Massachusetts to go through the trouble of a government-wide transition to OpenDoc. In the words of state Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss:

"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."

Who knows what the federal government will do if anything? But other state governments must be looking very closely at Massachusetts' plan and their willingness to confront Microsoft, incur the costs of the transition, force their vendors to change their software processes, etc. Here's David:

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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