Next Steps and ODF: It’s all about Education, Education (and Education)

The power of the press in huge, and therefore the responsibility to get the whole story, and get it right, is huge as well. When the effort is superficial, bad things may happen.

This being a long weekend, there’s not much new information flowing into the marketplace on the ODF front. But I did across an article that’s worth reviewing in detail, because it demonstrates how long a way there still is to go to educate the press about what the ODF issue is all about. With a crucial decision only days away in the Massachusetts legislature, who wins the hearts and minds of the decision makers will hinge in part on what is written in the same time period.


Speaking generically, the problem is the evolved nature of the short deadline, short-text, on-line news piece that is so prevalent today. Given those parameters, there is significant pressure exerted on the level of effort that is (and isn’t) spent on creating such ephemeral pieces of journalism. True, articles that present detailed analysis usually follow current events in due course, but when events are moving quickly (as they are now in the Massachusetts legislature), there is no time to wait for such articles to be written. Worse, serious technical articles are unlikely to reach legislators, while short pieces that help create “prevailing wisdom” may.


The article in question was posted on Friday by Joab Jackson, of Government Computer News, and is titled Mass. reference model controversy over open formats . This partgicular article is notable because it appears at a site that presents news to the government CIO community. How such a site tees up the ODF situation is therefore of greater significance than (say) what Fox.News chooses to offer (Fox, you may recall, not long ago aired a much-criticized anti-ODF op/ed piece by a representative of an organization backed by Microsoft, without disclosing the potential bias of the author (James Prendergast).


Let’s see how Jackson updates his audience on the Massachusetts situation:

Since its release last September, a technical reference model issued by Massachusetts has sparked considerable debate within the government technology community-and beyond.


At stake is the issue of how active a role public offices should take in fostering open standards. Should an agency adopt a new open format-one that would better suit its goals but may prove more difficult to deploy and manage? Or should agencies follow the best practices of the commercial IT industry, taking full advantage of cost efficiencies and new features that may follow?

Jackson next points out some of the open format virtues of ODF:



The issue is especially pertinent when it comes to government records, which must be preserved for the ages. “Documents are the lifeblood of the government,” said Dan Bricklin, IT consultant and Massachusetts resident who has been following the state’s actions….




OpenDocument is now undergoing the process of being ratified by the International Standards Organization, a global federation for validating standards.


“Ease of access to electronic records created in proprietary formats is limited in time. Once the proprietary vendor abandons a particular version of an application or format, documents created and formatted in those applications and formats may become inaccessible to all readers,” according to the frequently asked questions section of the state CIO’s Web site.

After reporting that Microsoft has not committed to supporting ODF, Jackson duly notes that there are several ODF compliant products from which Massachusetts may choose. He then presents the opposing view towards the Massachusetts decision – fair enough, because that’s what a journalist should do:



“There are a lot of people who say the government is being harsh on Microsoft,” said Barry Murphy, an enterprise content management analyst for Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. Murphy spoke at the Storage to Knowledge conference held in October by PostNewsweek Tech Media, which publishes GCN.




“Microsoft Office is so pervasive, you wonder if it is realistic for Massachusetts to force people to learn a new technology and bring in another vendor,” Murphy said.

Next, Jackson reports Microsoft’s view, as well as the XML alternative it offered to Massachusetts (the following are excerpts only):



Microsoft itself has voiced disapproval over the reference model “Essentially, what Massachusetts did was narrow their definition of openness pretty dramatically,” said Alan Yates, Microsoft’s general manager of information worker business strategy. “We feel it is unnecessary. It drives challenges, costs and problems that they really don’t need to take on.”




Microsoft Office 12, the next version of the productivity suite due out next year, saves documents in another open and royalty-free format, one based on the Extensible Markup Language. Microsoft has created an XML schema called MSXML that Office will use to format word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentation slides….


“We feel we have a format that is quite open for governments,” Yates said. “Any product could be built to use that format. This format is open now and will always be open. You can’t go back and close it up….[Government users would] also enjoy the advanced features that Microsoft Office offers, such as Section 508 compliance-a state requirement for IT tools.”

Jackson closes out with some responses to Microsoft’s position:



Thus far, the state CIO’s office doesn’t buy Microsoft’s argument. The technical reference FAQ specifically stated that the office did not consider MSXML sufficiently open.




Other observers feel that following one vendor’s lead may not be the correct way to develop a standard. “You’re trying to back into compatibility,” said Brain Stevens, chief technology office for Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C. OpenDocument was developed as a community standard, he said, one that allowed participants to “specify openly what a document format should look like.”


“The open-standards format is about rallying around what an open standard should be. If you can build momentum, think about what you can achieve,” Stevens said. “It is totally a disruptive force [but] it could level the playing field.”

So how did Jackson do? Superficially, he did all of the things that a journalist should do: he interviewed knowledgeable people on both sides of the issue (although not Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn or anyone else from his department), and offered opposing statements on the points that he selected to write about.


But on a closer look, this type of article isn’t what one would hope State CIOs (and legislators) would be reading this week. Let’s go through the more important parts of the article one more time.


In the opening, Jackson tees up the article by deciding which issues he wants to talk about to frame the debate. Recall that he stated as follows:

At stake is the issue of how active a role public offices should take in fostering open standards. Should an agency adopt a new open format-one that would better suit its goals but may prove more difficult to deploy and manage? Or should agencies follow the best practices of the commercial IT industry, taking full advantage of cost efficiencies and new features that may follow?

 Not the most neutral effort to tee the ODF debate up, as I see it, for the following reasons:



 – it focuses only on the short term, during which “deployment” will certainly be an issue, rather than the long term when benefits will begin to flow, and “management” could well be easier;
– it assumes that usage of an open standard available in both proprietary and open source forms is inconsistent with the “best practices of the commercial IT industry.” Such a characterization is at best selective and at worst indicative that the author doesn’t appreciate the values of these tools;
– it again (at best) focuses on short term “cost efficiencies” of continued use of Office, and (at worst) indicates a lack of familiarity with Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn’s assertion that substantial savings will follow from implementation of the ODF policy;
– it similarly assumes that more features will follow from a single, dominant developer than from a community of developers competing to provide value added features in order to distinguish their various offerings.

Jackson does a bit better after this, laying out the pro and con positions in a neutral fashion, but again he is selective, presenting only Massachusetts’ concern with document preservation, and totally ignoring its other motives, including a commitment to support for open standards due to the benefits that will follow from that policy, a desire to use open source alternatives when appropriate (and therefore to prefer policies that may increase the likelihood that such alternatives may exist), and Quinn’s anticipation of significant economic savings in the future as a result of the implementation of the policy.

Some of the criticisms of ODF he chooses to include are also not very informative or convincing, such as this:





“Microsoft Office is so pervasive, you wonder if it is realistic for Massachusetts to force people to learn a new technology and bring in another vendor,” Murphy said.

Well, OK, but hiring anyone who isn’t pre-trained, or introducing any new product, involves the same issues, and that doesn’t stop any CIO from doing more than taking those factors, among many others, into consideration before making such a decision.

Finally, there are no conclusions at the end of the article, or any effort to gauge which opinions quoted are valid and which are not. To be fair, this is a short news piece, rather than an analytical piece based on significant research, so while the absence is regrettable, it’s not situationally culpable. Personally, I find the lack of appreciation for the importance and value of open standards in a technology writer to be surprising. It doesn’t take research to draw obvious conclusions or to qualify statements made by sources to put them into proper perspective.

So what’s the moral? At minimum, that there’s still a lot of work to be done to get the word out to those who need to understand the issues better. Unless those that help create the prevailing wisdom are made fully aware of all of the facts, ODF may not become a “safe” decision for an agency or State CIO to make.

Making sure that this doesn’t happen is important, because whether or not Peter Quinn is successful in carrying the day, if there are not more government adopters in the next six months, that will be cited as proof that Massachusetts, in fact, is not following “best practices” when it acts to support not just ODF, but to specify open standards-based and (when appropriate) open source products over proprietary, putatively “safe” products in its procurement activities as well.




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