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A New Dawn Rising For Open Documents?

Progress of Openness

  • March 30, 2007
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

With the filing of a new bill in Oregon, five US states have now taken legislative action around adopting open documents. Still, government agencies in the US lag way behind those in Europe in moving beyond Windows lock-in. In one big bright note, though, the ODF (OpenDocuments Format) Alliance--a one-year-old organization backed by Microsoft rivals such as IBM and Sun--seems to be spurring a lot of positive change.

So far, the government document landscape in the US has been overwhelmingly dominated by three proprietary formats, acknowledged Marino Marcich, managing director of the alliance, in an interview with LinuxPlanet. Specifically, Marcich cited .DOC, Microsoft's Word document format, .PPT, Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation format, and .XLS, Microsoft's format for Excel spreadsheets.

"But we've jumped out in front in the government sphere, and it's only a matter of time before there's more uptake on the corporate side, as well," Marcich said.

Andy Updegrove, a standards expert who is a partner in the Boston law firm of Gesmer Updegrove, also voiced optimism over the long-term prognosis for open documents in the US.

"I expect that, five years from now, government requirements for open formats will be near universal, either by law or by agency-determined acquisition policies," he told LinuxPlanet.

Beyond Oregon, other states with open source initiatives now in place include Minnesota, Texas, California, and Massachusetts. Out of all of these, however, only Massachusetts has actually voted in favor of open documents--and by many accounts, the struggle in Massachusetts was hard won.

"[But] whether any of these individual bills passes this year is, I think, less important than the fact that the concern has been legitimized as being of real importance to the role of government," Updegrove said.

Meanwhile, among municipalities, communities that have opted for ODF run the gamut from Bloomington, IN to Largo, FL.

What's driving the change of heart? Marchich noted differences among the various states. The Oregon measure, for example, is the first to set forth a preference for open formats that are deployed in the biggest variety of programs and services, and which are also available as "freeware." The term "freeware" is defined as software "made available or distributed to the public free of charge for an unlimited time."

But Marcich also pointed to several common threads among the states, including desires to avoid vendor lock-in, cut costs, and "preserve their cultural heritage" by maintaining the viability of their electronic document formats into the future.

"States have been tied into the upgrade paths of a single vendor. [Open formats] allow them to get out of that. Choice leads to competition, so there's likely to be cost savings," he told LinuxPlanet.

"In some states, too, there's a concern over cultural heritage. If information is in closed proprietary format, it might not last forever."

Marcich suggested that the ODF Alliance is closely intertwined with the OASIS Consortium, owner of the ODF specification. Members of OASIS also belong to the alliance, although the alliance also includes user organizations that are not part of the vendor-oriented OASIS, he said. In addition to his job with the alliance, for instance, Marchich also sits on the Adoption Committee at OASIS.

ODF supports both free open source software, such as OpenOffice and K-Office, and commercial products such as Sun's StarOffice and IBM Workplace, he said.

But he also contended that, although the alliance has "reached out to" all state governments in the US, none of the legislative measures proposed (and/or acted on) in the five US states specifically calls for ODF as the open format of choice.

The alliance--which is funded by IBM, Sun, Novell, Red Hat, and Oracle--just turned one year old this week. Is it any coincidence that the bills in Oregon, Minnesota, Texas and California have all been filed over the past year?

Well, apparently, yes and no. "To the extent that some of the state bills stem back to their efforts, they have clearly made a difference. Significantly, though, it's my understanding that not all have, which I think is an even more important factor," Updegrove said.

"By serving as a clearinghouse and source of reliable information, by gathering a huge membership in a very short period of time, and by ensuring that information about the uptake of ODF reaches a wide audience, the Alliance has helped to create a national �safe haven' for ODF as a positive subject of dialog. As a result, state legislators--and even more importantly, state employees--can work more actively and less fearfully towards implementing ODF."

Many observers charge that Microsoft has done very hardball lobbying on its own behalf, particularly in Massachusetts.

"Microsoft used its lobbyists in Massachusetts to aggressively knock out not one, but TWO, ODF-supporting CIOs," wrote one user, on an online bulletin board.

"[But] free and open standards speak for themselves," according to the user. "At least 10 percent of the United States is [now] determined to go open source. The others are simply undecided at this stage. Wait and watch the cattle effect."

Yet beyond the efforts of the Alliance, vendors such as IBM and Sun also lobbied state governments in efforts to persuade them to use ODF instead of Microsoft's competing OOXML.

"But I think there has been a clear difference in tactics and techniques as between Microsoft, on the one hand, and IBM and Sun, on the other," according to Updegrove.

"In Massachusetts, Microsoft's very aggressive lobbying approach has been well documented," he said. "People who want to do the right thing by working towards implementation of open formats need to have some cover, and the ODF Alliance [now helps] to provide that."

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