Microsoft Blasts Massachusetts' New 'Office' Policy

According to a proposed plan distributed by the state's Information Technology Division on Wednesday, only two document formats – Open Document and Adobe's PDF – will be acceptable for state use in the future.

The OpenDocument format, which was ratified in May by Oasis, is supported by OpenOffice, an open source Office suite, and in Sun's StarOffice, which is owned by Sun Microsystems.

"Desktop software that supports OpenDocument and PDF in the future is acceptable; Microsoft's proprietary XML formats are not," Eric Kriss, Secretary of Administration and Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, told CRN during an telephone interview Friday.

Microsoft Office does not support OpenDocument and company executives said this week they have no plans to support that format in future versions of Office.

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The document is subject to public review until Sept. 9, but the policy – which has been debated for more than two years -- is not likely to change, state officials said.

The state and software company have locked horns on this issue for more than two years but appeared to reach agreement last January when Microsoft said it would ease licensing restrictions on Office XML schemas.

Kriss said, however, the state's IT administration carefully reviewed and considered both Microsoft's Office XML schemas and OpenDocument but voted for the latter as the standard that would best meet the needs of the citizens of Massachusetts. He said the state had concerns about the openness of the XML schemas and potential patent issues that could arise in the future.

Kriss said there is little room for additional negotiations with Microsoft and expects the policy to go into effect in late September, if not earlier. Once finalized, state agencies must develop phased migration plans with a target implementation date of January 1, 2007, the report states.

While any company can adopt the royalty free standard, Microsoft will not support OpenDocument in its next version of Office 12 because it is an inferior file format and is not compatible with older versions of Office, one Microsoft executive said this week after the report was released. Office 12 is due next year.

"No," said Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker Business Strategy, when asked by CRN about the potential for Office to support OpenDocument. "The Office "12" formats pay special attention to compatibility with older document versions, [and] other formats do not concern themselves with this important issue," Yates said.

Further, he added, "this proposal acknowledges that Open Document does not address pictures, audio, video, charts, maps, voice, voice-over-IP, and other kinds of data our customers are increasingly putting in documents and archiving."

Kriss acknowledged that use of Office could be eliminated across state agencies if Microsoft does not comply with the newly approved XML-based file format but that move is not inevitable.

"Let's not leap to conclusions, " Kriss said, adding that Microsoft's Internet Explorer complies with HTTP standards so backing OpenDoc would not be a hardship for Microsoft. "Microsoft could put capabilities within their XML Office suite right now to open, save and manipulate OpenDocument formats. It is certainly something they could do. "

Of the $1.2 billion that Massachusetts spends on capital investment, about $100 million is earmarked for IT spending, and software comprises a substantial portion of that number.

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.

"We want OpenDocument, not Microsoft's XML standards. If Microsoft can make Office save and manipulate the OpenDocument XML standard, it would make their product more competitive for our use. "

If it 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, while noting that much of its Office updating and deployment business is handled by its internal IT staff, said he does not expect to see a major shift in the supply of vendors and service contractors, but he does see perhaps greater opportunities for firms that support the OpenDoc format that is supported, for example, by OpenOffice.

If the state dropped Word and Excel, it would impact many VARs and solutionproviders in the Bay state. "It's an interesting issue, and we'd definitely have to add OpenDocument formatting to our regular business processes," said Mike Healey, president of TENCorp, a VAR in Needham, Mass. that does business with local governments and schools. "We, like everyone else, just use Microsoft or PDF formatting. "

Microsoft's Yates said the company agrees with the adoption of XML but does not agree that the solution to "public records management is to force a single, less functional document format on all state agencies."

"The proposed policy is inconsistent with ongoing dialogues Microsoft is having with other Massachusetts state agencies about how Microsoft products can best meet their data and records requirements for a variety of data types - ranging from traditional documents to pictures, audio, video, voice, voice-over-IP, data, database schema, web pages, and XML information," Yates said. "As we look to the future, and all of these data types become increasingly intertwined, locked-in formats like OpenDocument are not well suited to address these varying data types - as the proposed policy itself acknowledges. It's this need for choice and flexibility that led Microsoft to design Office in a way that supports any XML schemas that a customer chooses, a capability lacking in less functional formats."

Regardless of Microsoft's argument, it does not appear the state will budge this time. Kriss said the state has completed several migrations that involve both proprietary and open source products and he does not anticipate any major costs that would adversely impact taxpayers. "We have gone through extensive review and we believe were the best at understanding our own needs," Kriss said. "Microsoft is free to express opinions about the technology value but for our needs the document outlines what we believe. "