Open XML Gets Nod from Massachusetts

Observers say Bay State’s tentative approval of Open XML could have ripple effect.

Developers should take note of a preliminary finding last month by Massachusetts, which determined Microsoft's Open XML format qualifies as an open standard under state IT policy.

After all, the Massachusetts Information Technology Division's controversial decision two years ago to require state agencies to move away from Microsoft Office proprietary file formats has been credited with helping to elevate the OpenDocument Format, or ODF, from an obscure spec to a major standard.

Massachusetts is expected to issue a final decision this month on whether state agencies can create documents in either Open XML or ODF formats. Bethann Pepoli, the state's acting CIO, says her department began leaning toward certifying the Microsoft-developed spec as an open format in December 2006, when it was approved by the European standards body Ecma International.

"With the approval in December and recent industry support, we felt it was a good time, and we've been very keen on moving toward XML-based documents," Pepoli says.

A Chilling Effect?
Andrew Updegrove, a Boston standards lawyer and open formats advocate, says the move ultimately could spook programmers, vendors and customers looking seriously at alternatives to Microsoft Office.

"For Massachusetts to reverse direction is something of a psychological blow," says Updegrove, who has done legal work for the OASIS standards body, which developed ODF. "What if the two formats are given 100-percent equal weight as open standards? Let's imagine everyone keeps using Microsoft, and ODF slides off the table. Then we're right back to where we started."

But Pepoli denies the draft IT policy means Massachusetts is ceding to Microsoft's demands. "I wouldn't say we're reversing course. Our original course was to move to XML-based documents," she says.

Tom RobertsonA Microsoft spokesperson said Tom Robertson, the company's general manager for corporate interoperability and standards, was traveling and unavailable for an interview.

Microsoft said in a statement that Massachusetts' move to recognize Open XML "would give users the ability to choose the open file-format standard that best serves their needs."

Much at Stake
For enterprise developers, Massachusetts' previous stance against proprietary document formats had the potential of helping to upset the dominant Windows-Office platform for client software, Updegrove says.

"I think what you're seeing is a strategy decision by Microsoft to join its strategies against both ODF and Linux together into one," Updegrove says, adding that the biggest threat to Redmond is ODF-supporting productivity software running on a Linux desktop. "That would be the worst of all worlds for Microsoft because they wouldn't control either piece."
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