As an IT Center on a Hill?

When John Winthrop thrust the colonists of Massachusetts in 1630 into the role of an example to the world, did he set the psychology in place for a decision by a Massachusetts CIO 375 years later?

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

Puritan divine John Winthrop famously uttered those words (based on a scriptural passage in the Gospel of Matthew) in a sermon in Boston in 1630. He also included them in a work entitled “On Christian Charity.” His famous phrase has been transplanted into various settings, and employed for many purposes, ever since (Ronald Reagan was particularly prone to quote Winthrop to illustrate his own vision of the mission of America).



One is tempted to recall Winthrop’s cautionary words yet again in the context of the decision by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to require use of the Open Document format internally (and therefore mandating compliance by a variety of external partners as well). While Massachusetts is not the first government to embrace the Open Document format, it is the first jurisdiction in the United States to take the plunge.




There are more than superficial resemblances between calling for right conduct in public and right conduct in information technology. Making IT transitions is always, to state it frankly, a pain in the neck. One that is necessary on a frequent basis, to be sure, but what CIO enjoys procuring, installing, learning (and worst of all) training in connection with deploying a new IT resource? Governments, therefore, can play a key role in getting a marketplace over the hump of adopting new technology, especially where businesses are not sufficiently motivated to do so for their own reasons.




In the case of Massachusetts, there is something of the flavor of John Winthrop’s messianic quest as well. The Commonwealth, after all, was one of the most spirited states in pursuing antitrust charges against Microsoft not so long ago, and one of the most unwilling to fold its tents after the Department of Justice opted to settle. By challenging Microsoft’s claim that it cannot adopt the Open Document format without causing legacy issues with older versions of Microsoft products, Peter Quinn, the Massachusetts CIO, and his department are doubtless continuing the pursuit of warfare by other means as well as making important IT decisions.




But is it over-reaching to recall Winthrop in such a context? Perhaps not, given the fervor of the open source community. True, the Open Document format is a standard, not an open source software product. But it has been instantiated in the OpenOffice and other open source office suites, and the uptake of those software tools will doubtless receive a solid push from the decision of Massachusetts, and the goal – independence from proprietary lock-in – is the same in each case.




Is that enough to invoke a comparison between Peter Quinn and John Winthrop? Perhaps it is. Consider the following press release from Open Source Victoria (as in Victoria, Australia), titled, OVA to States: Follow Massachusetts in Open Document Standards (the states being referred to, incidentally, are those Down Under, and not in North America). In part, the press release reads as follows:




The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has announced the adoption of the OpenDocument XML file format as its preferred method for storing government documents. In doing so, Massachusetts joins the Australian Federal Government in adopting this format for long-term electronic document storage. Open Source Victoria calls on all remaining Australian states and government agencies to also adopt this format, as it is the only viable approach to ensuring guaranteed access to public sector documents and data in perpetuity.

John Winthrop would hardly know what to make of software, but doubtless he would be pleased to see that a decision taken on Beacon Hill can still cast a light that provides inspiration around the world.





Watch for the September issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin, which will focus on the uptake of open source by governments, and will include a story on the Massachusetts decision, based on interviews with Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn, the OASIS Open Document TC chair, and Microsoft representatives. For a free subscription, go to: