Massachusetts' CIO defends move to OpenDocument

A public hearing concerning Massachusetts' plan to dump Microsoft for OpenDocument featured a fair share of controversy as the state's CIO tried to fight off naysayers.

BOSTON -- Open standards and open source software (OSS) got political on Monday when Linda Hamel, the general counsel

for the Massachusetts Information Technology Department (ITD), suggested that groups that oppose the OpenDocument file format standard might be influenced by Microsoft.

Hamel was testifying before the Senate's committee on Post Audit and Oversight at a hearing regarding the state's switch to the OpenDocument file format. Sen. Marc Pacheco, who is chairman of that committee, called the hearing after reports indicated that Secretary of State William Galvin would not support the switch.

"If we look at all the groups … in most we are finding Microsoft funds behind that group," Hamel said, although she did make the point to exclude those groups that represented disabled government employees from her criticism.

OpenDocument is a free file format for text, spreadsheets and presentations created by OASIS, a consortium of companies like IBM and Sun Microsystems that creates interoperable industry specifications based on public standards such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML).

Massachusetts chose the OpenDocument standard instead of a proprietary format like Microsoft's still-under-development Office Open XML.

Pacheco took exception to Hamel's remarks and first asked if she believed these groups were in fact "wholly owned subsidiaries of Microsoft," before asking if she believed they had been "bought" by the software giant.

"Those are your words, not mine senator," Hamel replied to both questions.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has issued a statement that said the move to OpenDocument would incur unnecessary costs as the state government would be forced to convert "more than one million current files to the new [OpenDocument] format."

However, an entry in the online FAQ on the Massachusetts Web site addressed this complaint, stating that only those documents created after January 1, 2007, must be in the OpenDocument standard.

The proposed file format changes have also been panned by the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. The organization's president, Curtis Chong, told the Boston Globe in October that Microsoft had already added features to its Office product that allowed the software to interact with Braille printers and screen-reader programs that speak the text on a computer screen.

In response to those concerns, Peter Quinn, Massachusetts Information Technology Division [ITD], chief information officer explained those workers would continue to use Microsoft Office while colleagues move to a different brand of software.

"Adopting the [OpenDocument] standard does not mean we will have to abandon our commitment to existing legacy systems," Quinn said. He added the legacy systems would be maintained until a cost-effective alternative is available in the future.

Even as Quinn and Hamel sought to clarify their department's position on OpenDocument, Pacheco said there were still public concerns about users with disabilities and total cost of ownership.

Pacheco said it appeared that no cost analysis had been done before ITD committed to OpenDocument, and that the agency had moved forward unilaterally without input from other agencies.

Cote criticized the planned move to what he described as questionable, untested and unreliable technology, and urged the committee to reject the standard.

"The policy was changing before my eyes; it started as open source then became OpenDocument," he said.

This story originally appeared on SearchOpenSource.com.

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