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Heated debate brewing over state's OpenDocument plan

Heated debate brewing over state's OpenDocument plan

A debate is brewing in Massachusetts over the state's move to support OpenDocument for all documents in its government agencies.

Debate among Massachusetts government officials may throw a wrench in a state proposal to migrate away from Microsoft's Office productivity suite in favor of software that supports an open-document format.

The office of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has expressed public opposition to the plan, proposed by the office of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, to support Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) as the standard for state office documents. The plan, which has been published on the state's Web site, would require a phasing out of versions of Microsoft Office deployed in the state's executive-branch agencies.

Galvin, in his role as the supervisor of records for Massachusetts, is cautious about the proposal and is in ongoing discussions about it with state leaders, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary's office. He declined to comment further.

State Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton, Massachusetts, Democrat, has scheduled a hearing for Monday before the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight about whether the proposal is a good idea for Massachusetts.

Pacheco, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday he is concerned whether the proposal violates state policies for IT services procurement. The senator also said he has concerns about whether OpenDocument will be compatible with existing state records and computer programs used by the state's disabled citizens. He said several organizations for the disabled are so upset about the proposal they are prepared to file a lawsuit.

"We have received concerns through staff about the public records division of the Secretary of State's office, which has serious questions about the policy and the way it's being implemented, not the least of which are concerns from the disability community who believe they are not going to be able to access public records and access the system as it has been proposed," Pacheco said.

Massachusetts Chief Information Officer Peter Quinn released a final version of the office of the governor's Enterprise Technical Reference Model, which outlines the proposed changes, on the state's Web site last month. The proposal calls for agencies to develop phased migration plans away from productivity suites that do not support OpenDocument, with a target start date of Jan. 1, 2007.

Felix Browne, a spokesman for Governor Romney, said the state is still in the process of collecting opinions on the proposal, though there have been no changes to the plan based on feedback so far.

"We continue to collect feedback from a number of sources, some of them state sources like Secretary Galvin," he said. "We take all of that feedback very seriously, which is why we continue to operate a public process of review."

Browne would not speculate on the chance that opposition or debate over the proposal would change or cancel the current plan.

Microsoft wrote a letter, which is published on the state's Web site, opposing the move to OpenDocument. Neither Browne nor McNiff would comment on whether Microsoft's stance on the OpenDocument proposal has fueled opposition to the plan.

OpenDocument is a file format based on an XML (Extensible Markup Language)-based file format, developed within the OASIS standards body, which covers the features required by text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents. Microsoft Office and other productivity suites such as Lotus Notes and WordPerfect that Massachusetts government agencies currently use support proprietary document formats. Suites that support OpenDocument include OpenOffice, StarOffice, KOffice and IBM Workplace.

Though some Microsoft watchers speculate that the company may support OpenDocument if there is customer demand for it, the company's official line is that it has no plans at this time to support the format because it does not see the need for it.

"We fully expect partners, independent companies and competitors to provide converters between our Open XML formats and the OpenDocument formats, and are aware of a few projects along these lines already," said Erik Ryan, product manager for Microsoft Office, in an e-mail statement.

Senator Pacheco's office has spoken with the company as well as with other technology companies, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat, about the proposal and its possible effect on the state's IT operations.

Microsoft recently came under fire from readers of FoxNews.com, who blasted a Sept. 30 column criticizing Massachusetts' decision to support OpenDocument. The column, "Massachusetts Should Close Down OpenDocument," was written by James Prendergast, executive director of the Americans for Technology Leadership, an organization Microsoft co-founded.

Several of the letters, published on FoxNews.com, accused Microsoft of trying to promote its own interests by presenting Prendergast, writing for a Microsoft-linked organization, as an unbiased observer.

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