Mass ITD Resolved Accessibility Issues, Adjusts ODF Rollout Details

Well, I know that you're not supposed to check your email while on vacation, but among other things, I had learned last week that the Mass ITD would be issuing its mid-year statement on accessibility about now, and wanted to check in to see what it said.  What I didn't expect was to find that someone at ZDNet had run a fantasy piece like this, which not only inaccurately reports that the ITD has been mandating open source implementations of ODF, but for some reason decides that I'm to blame for any delay in implementing ODF.  I suppose I should be complimented if I can change the course of history with my virtual pen, but for better or worse, that's simply not the case.  

Based on my own sources, here is what is right and wrong about what's been reported so far:

Right:  Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez met with representatives of the community of the disabled last Friday to brief them on a letter that will be sent to community leaders today.  It promises to use plugins in order to save documents in ODF form in order to alleviate accessibility concerns.  The ITD has also now signed a long-awaited Memorandum of Understanding with the Massachusetts Office on Disability and the state's Department of Health and Human Service The ITD also signed a commitment with the Massachusetts Office on Disability and the state's Department of Health and Human Service to design, procure, certify and develop training for software that is accessible to people with disabilities, as well as to establish a unit devoted to accessible technology, expanding on its launch in May of an accessibility lab to a similar purpose.

I've learned that it's also true that use of ODF compliant applications will not be mandatory on January 1 by employees of the Executive Agencies.

Wrong:  This does not mean, however, that Executive Agency departments will not be able to begin deploying ODF compliance software if they so choose when they upgrade their desktops as long as they make full accommodation for the needs of the disabled, allowing for instance, the use of Microsoft Office with an ODF plug-in.  For now, plugins will be the principal way of meeting the January 1, 2007 commitment.  Deployment will begin immediately after the plugins become both available, and certified for accessibility.

It is also inaccurate to say that Massachusetts is now mandating, or ever has, mandated open source software that supports ODF.

It is also inaccurate to suggest that the ITD does not remain committed to ODF and open standards.

Finally, it is inaccurate to say that the ITD has made a decision over whether to use open source or proprietary implementations of ODF when it does begin deployment of new software.

In summary, the news is largely consistent with earlier reports that plugins and a phased in approach of new software will be used, rather than orchestrating an abrupt, end of the year transformation.  Since January, there has been a steady backing away from any suggestion that such an abrupt transformation would occur, while the ITD performed the type of economic and accessibility analysis that an upgrade of this magnitude requires.

Here’s what has been reported elsewhere in greater detail, and why the above clarifications are important.

By way of background, Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Trimarco committed in a meeting with representatives of the community of the disabled in mid January of this year that the ODF deployment would not move forward without adequate support for the needs of the disabled.  He also mentioned that an assessment would be made in mid 2006 on whether or not the goal of a January 1, 2007 deployment was achievable.  The ITD has frequently mentioned this commitment, and has explored various ways to address the fact that to date there are, not surprisingly, more accessibility tools available to support use of Microsoft Office than ODF compliant applications.

One way to address that need would be to utilize “plugins” that would allow those with disabilities to continue to use Office and save documents in ODF format.  The ITD issued a request for information in early May about the availability of such plugins and received a number of responses, as well as a commitment of cooperation from Microsoft.  Ideally, Microsoft would have agreed to natively support a “save to ODF” function in Office, but declined to do so.  Instead, it later announced that it would fund and support an open source project to create such tools.

Turning to the on-line stories that have appeared to date, the most accurate piece that I have seen thus far  on that meeting is by Martin LaMonica and appears in

Martin reports that Romney administration spokesman Felix Browne states that a letter summarizing the results of the assessment will be send to disability representatives today.  As a result, the exact text of that letter will not be publicly available until later today at the earliest.

The other articles that appear, however, have some significant inaccuracies.  For instance, several still are perpetuating confusion over the difference between ODF, open source, and open standards.  For example, an article by “TechWorld staff” and bylined August 21 is titled Visually impaired prevent Massachusetts move to open source.  The article begins as follows:

A group of visually impaired campaigners has made the US state of Massachusetts alter its move to open document format (ODF). The campaign group found that the open-source software to read applications within ODF did not work with screen magnifiers.

In fact, the story is based on a piece by ComputerWorld’s Carol Sliwa, which appeared on August 18.  Carol’s more accurate title is Mass to adopt near-term strategy for ODF and her opening is as follows:

During a meeting today with state officials and advocates for people with disabilities, Louis Gutierrez, CIO of Massachusetts’ IT Division (ITD), said the state will postpone a Jan. 1 deadline to roll out open-source office applications that can save files in the Open Document Format (ODF). Instead, the state will on a near-term basis adopt a plug-in strategy to fulfill its policy calling for executive-branch agencies to make use of ODF.

I’ve learned that Carol has confirmed that TechWorld rewrote her opening, and is trying to get them to correct it.  When you read Carol’s piece in its entirety, it becomes clear that ODF exists in both proprietary and open source versions, and there is no suggestion that the ITD has yet made a decision on which to deploy.

What’s particularly annoying about the TechWorld version is this: For the umpteenth time, the Massachusetts ITD …has…never…mandated…open…source implementations of ODF.  ODF is a _standard_ that can, and has, been implemented in open source by several projects (such as OpenOffice and K Office), and is also available in proprietary versions as well (such as Sun’s StarOffice and IBM’s Managed Client).  And, as these examples indicate, ODF…is…not…OpenOffice, although OpenOffice is a fine example of software that implements ODF.

As I’ve tried to demonstrate in my ongoing series of interviews with ODF software vendors, there is an emerging environment that offers rich choices in this area, ongoing innovation, open source and proprietary versions, and real competition to advance the state of the art.  You can read the interview to date of KOffice, OpenOffice, StarOffice 8 and SoftMaker at this blog  and, next week, IBM as well (look for the Novell interview in September) .  Some of these developers have their own robust accessibility programs, adding to the work being done at OASIS, the developer of the ODF standard.

When it’s ready, each Massachusetts Executive Agency will decide which implementation of ODF it wishes to use.  Perhaps some will choose an open source version of ODF, such as OpenOffice or KOffice, and that decision may lead to more third parties getting into the business of supporting ODF.  Other agencies it may decide to pay licensing fees in exchange for greater current support, and choose a suite such as StarOffice.   In short, not only has Massachusetts not made a decision which software application to use, but Massachusetts won’t – each agency will make its own decision.

Now let’s turn to Dana Blankenhorn’s bizarre piece.  First of all, Dana (who should know better) picks up and repeats the open source confusion, titling his piece Blind leading the way from open source.

I’m sure this is just a hiccup, but apparently the blind have given Massachusetts’ efforts to mandate open source the shaft.  Because Open Document Format (ODF) software (Open Office) does not yet work with screen magnifiers, which make computer documents usable by those who are legally blind, the state of Massachusetts is

This is an ancient piece of FUD (mandating open source) that has been perpetrated by ODF opponents, and it is discouraging to see it continue to appear in venues (such as ZDNet and TechWorld) that have credibility.

Dana then goes on to say that the roll-out of ODF will be delayed by “at least a year,” but doesn’t cite a source for that statement.  In fact, the TechWorld piece that he seems to otherwise base his post on nowhere includes that statement.  And, as noted at the top of my piece, my sources say that elective rollout of ODF applications could begin much sooner.

But things get truly bizarre when Dana has this to say about the cause for any delay in the roll-out of ODF:

“Credit” for this goes to attorney Andrew Updegrove (above), who wrote a paper for the [Disability Policy] Commission last year challenging the state’s action. He has not yet commented because, according to his blog, he’s hiking in northern Arizona. If you see him there ask him about it.

Hello?  I seem to have returned from the desert to the wrong planet.

First, the “paper” he refers to is an article that I wrote back in September of last year for my monthly on-line journal, the Consortium Standards Bulletin.  It is pure fabrication to suggest that it was written “for the commission.”  In fact, I don’t know whether anyone on the commission is even a subscriber.  Nowhere is there any evidence or reason to connect my (now) ancient, objective article with anything happening today.

Second, far from being a “challenge” to the state’s action, that article, and the entire issue in which it appears, support the ITD’s action.

Next, everyone has acknowledged from the very beginning that ODF applications do not yet match Microsoft Office in support for the disabled.  The community of the disabled had brought this to the attention of the Commission before I even started writing about ODF.

As anyone knows who has read any of the 114 blog entries I’ve written about ODF, I am a supporter of that standard, and have dutifully reported on progress being made on accessibility issues, as well as provided static links in the right hand column to experts such as Sun’s Peter Korn and Carol Tech on Accessibility.

So why in the world did Dana choose to take, without authorization, a picture of me from my firm’s Website, and then concoct a spurious connection between me and a delay in ODF implementation?

Who the hell knows.  But, to borrow from his entry, “if you see him, ask him about it.”

For my part, I’m heading back to the desert.  Things tend to be more straight ahead out there.

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Comments (3)

  1. Well said Andy. I wish you were a little stronger in your reply to their lies which you exposed and obvious sleaziness they demonstrated. Those guys deserve every bit of hanging.

    • I’d be happy to run this, or link to it, or do an interview with you in order to correct what was in my blog. Apparently the story I linked to there had been changed on its way to an affiliate, and readers weren’t told of the changes.

      Please accept my apologies and feel free to get in touch with me directly. I’m sure my editor will give you my e-mail address or phone number in a heartbeat.

      Dana Blankenhorn
      ZDNet Open Source blog

      • Mr. Blankenhorn,

        You should have, and could have, done better than this, if this is really you posting here.  I am not Mr. Updegrove, but I have done my own following on of the ODF situation in Massachusetts, and I must say, what you wrote was shameful.

        My specific objection is to your attempt to blend “open source” with “open standards”.  There is so, so much publicly-available documentation out there, that any proper amount of journalism would have turned it up with fairly minimal Googling.  If you had a question about it (and you should’ve, since your article was quite incorrect about this), you could have called someone in the Massachusetts ITD.

        This was either sloppy on your part, or intentionally deceptive.

Comments are closed.