Real Time Report: ODF/XML Open Forum at the Mass. State House

I'm currently at the Open Forum at the Mass. State House, and will report in real-time as the meeting proceeds

Notes to this entry:

1. I modestly cleaned up the text below after the Forum, but it is otherwise unchanged from the text that I entered during the Open Forum and which was posted in real time during the Forum.

2. An audio recording of the Forum was made by Dan Bricklin, and may be heard at: You may also wish to use the rough text below as a tool for more easily finding a specific section of Dan’s recording.

3. Bob Sutor’s prepared remarks may be read in full at:

4. Some of the notes below are more extensive than others, depending on how well I could hear, how fast the person talked, or how easy they were to summarize in real time. As a result, the fidelity and thoroughness varies.

5. Please regard these notes as informative rather than dispositive; please use Dan’s podcast for the definitive version.

I’m currently at the Mass. State House, attending a meeting called “An Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Formats for the Commonwealth,” which is focusing on the current controversy in the Massachusetts legislature over the adoption of ODF and/or the Microsoft XML Reference Schema. I will be reporting here in real-time as the meeting proceeds. I won’t be trying to take a rough transcript this time, but will try to summarize as many of the presentations’ key points and questions as possible.

There are about 100 people in the formal, ornate, high-ceilinged Senate Reading Room. The crowd includes State legislators, corporate employees (many from IBM, Microsoft and Sun), press, accessibility advocates, and others.

The presenters are:

As legislative hosts: Senator Jack Hart, Rep. Dan Bosley (Chairs of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies)

John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center on Internet and Society, Harvard Law School (Palfrey hosted an earlier invitation-only meeting with some of the same speakers about six weeks ago).

Bob Sutor, IBM VP of Standards and Open Source

Alan Yates, Microsoft General Manager of Information Worker Business Strategy

Peter Quinn, Mass. CIO and head of the Information Technology Division (ITD)

Linda Hamel, General Council, ITD

Bob Sproull, Sun Microsystems

Judy Brewer, Web Accessibility Initiative, W3C

Alan Cote, Mass. Secretary of State’s Office

Senator Hart briefly welcomes all.

In his opening remarks, John Palfrey expresses his pride that Massachusetts is tackling the issues, and notes his bias towards a “free and open Internet,” and discloses that IBM, Sun and other interested parties support his Center. He then identifies the “elephant in the living room,” which is the commercial significance of the current debate, and urges that the elephant be evicted so that serious policy matters may be properly addressed.

Palfrey notes the importance of openness and availability of information, and setting up an ecosystem where information can be accessed over time, including by those with disabilities. Interoperability is crucial, and admittedly costs are significant as well – but the upfront switching costs are a “red herring” – long-term costs should be the measure, and, frankly, Massachusetts is not at the forefront of eGovernment today – an investment is warranted.

Finally, he notes that innovation is an important issue here, and that what the State does should be consistent with the well-earned reputation for innovation of Massachusetts. Small firms can benefit from the ITD’s policy, and innovation is how that can be done. In that regard, technologies should be “generative,” meaning that citizens can access, use, and build on the State’s resources.

Wrapping up, the world is watching – Massachusetts is the canary in the coalmine – and we’ve got to get this right.

Rep. Dan Bosley now introduces the panel, inviting each panelist to give a brief introduction, including answering the question, “Is it important that the Commonwealth adopt an open format?

Bob Sutor leads off, commending Mass. on its open process in evolving this IT policy, and asks them to maintain the integrity of that process. He notes also the importance of having a multi-vendor environment, which will lead to greater innovation than a vendor-controlled standard – he says to the Commonwealth, “Don’t turn back.”

ODF was created to answer the needs and demands of customers – we as a vendor, and others, are committed to serving customer demands – don’t turn back. Your needs will best be served by running with ODF immediately. IBM is committed to serving those governments and others that want an open format.

One last time, “Don’t turn back!”

Peter Quinn, Mass. State CIO speaks next:

Peter begins by reviewing the history of the consideration, review, open examination of, and final adoption of ODF. Gives examples of needs and challenges, and stresses commitment to addressing accessibility needs – and also announces that if those needs are not met by the announced effectiveness date for ODF implementation (Janurary 1, 2007), then the effective date will be rolled back until that need is met. Applauds IBM’s efforts in helping meet these needs.

Representative Corey Atkins introduces Bob Sproull, asking, “What do we have to gain – and lose – from adopting an open format? What my constituents want is more transparency.”

Sproull is speaking off the cuff, and endorses and agrees with “everything Bob Sutor said.” He stresses Sun’s commitment to meeting State needs as well. Uses the openness of the telephony world as an example, and the innovation that this openness has enabled – notes that documents are a form of communication as well – a communication to the future. Says that we are not in a “breakdown of communication” mode, but we do need to address these needs.

Turning to the Commonwealth’s questions: can we deliver? Yes we can. And we can make the system flexible, so that it can evolve (like telecom standards do), to meet future needs. The innovations that this openness will enable will drive the future.

Rep. Atkins next introduces Alan Yates.

Appreciates invitation, and acknowledges the need and importance for a public debate – welcomes the opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions. Agrees that delivering value to constituencies is in important duty. Let’s keep the focus on “value,” and what value means. People should be able to choose the best value for the money. Says that he’s not “particularly arguing with anything that Bob Sproull or Bob Sutor have said about openness,” but adds, “can Massachusetts be open to additional choices besides ODF?” which will help avoid ongoing debates, and “public technology sitting at the craps table” hoping that the choice you made is the right one.

Policy can also be used to establish political agendas. Gives example of Brazil, where he says someone recounted to him how his government “was choosing my software for me.” Public policy should not favor one model over another – proprietary software can be “open” just as open source can. These are two different business models, and government should be open to both – and to whatever else comes along. If you do this, you will avoid problems like additional costs; like a lack of accessibility features. “My message is to open up to more choices.” We are gratified by the reaction to our moving the schema to Ecma, “which is beyond anyone’s question an open process.”

XML has been great at enabling openness, but performance can be an issue – you don’t want it to take three minutes to open a spreadsheet. We also want to be sure that all legacy documents can be opened. The technology is opening rapidly, and we’ve borrowed from other’s ideas – such as Sun – to make it so that any open source developer can use these formats. Lawyers will still be arguing over this, I expect, but our covenant is intended to enable the schema to be usable with no concerns.

In summary, Microsoft has never argued against the OpenDocument in any form. We’re looking forward to helping spur this new era of innovation.

Rep. Atkins then introduces Alan Cote.

Cote says “I hate to pour cold water on this,” but most documents are destroyed after 10 years. And almost no paper documents that exist are available for public view right now – and eventually will be destroyed. This is really all just about records management. The idea is to make everything available, though. But note – most documents won’t be affected by this policy. Legislative and judicial records are closed – and will stay closed. So my focus is a bit different. We don’t have a crisis – we don’t have thousands of records that people can’t see. We don’t have documents on servers that can’t be opened and read – we’ll find a way to make them available. It doesn’t mean that we’re not working on this.

“What we’re fighting for is open access forever at the cheapest cost, and I look forward to working with everyone to achieve that end.”

Rep. Atkins next introduces Judy Brewer.

Brewer reads from a statement, and welcomes the degree of attention that has, and is, being given to accessibility issues. She disagrees with Cote in that those in State government do have to review all kinds of records – and they therefore have to meet accessibility needs, as there are many state employees with accessibility needs.

Some have proposed that the open approach should aid in permitting others to solve accessibility issues – we’ll see how that works out. What levels of accessibility do we need? This has not yet been addressed by this panel (reviews levels). Agrees that the Massachusetts dialogue is being viewed all over the world – and that includes as regards accessibility issues. There are questions that need to be answered as the process continues: has there been an objective review of the issues that need to be addressed with ODF? Is there a plan for addressing them? OASIS has announced a Working Group to address these issues, which is gratifying. But what is their reference, legal or otherwise, for setting their goals? [Asks many other questions more quickly than I can grab them.]

I’m hoping that the dialogue here will put increasing focus on “more systematic and ongoing addressing of these problems.”

Alan Hart asks Alan Cote a follow-up question: I hear people asking these same accessibility questions. How do these needs relate to the decisions that you need to make?

Cote: documents are reviewed to determine how best to preserve them – often they are digitized in multiple formats, which are then converted over time as necessary to keep up with technological evolution. [Cote has said this previously, and it has never made sense to me – wouldn’t he like to solve this problem with a format standard?] One solution that we are aware of would be to try to make all records available via a Web browser. If we have a crisis, that crisis is document degradation, due to damp and heat. I hope that the current process encourages vendors to provide me with solutions to this problem.

Hart asks another question: What system would you recommend, moving forward?

Cote: we do not have a crisis; we need to review the situation, and I can’t recommend a solution at this time. I’m encouraged that we can select a solution “down the road,” but that will need to be reviewed down the road as well.

Hart introduces Linda Hamel. Thanks legislature for opportunity to have this forum. Says that she would like to explain what life is like for those inside government right now. The ODF question implicates all types of laws – accessibility laws – laws giving authority to adopt IT policies – the Advisory Panel – and so on. All of these are implicated in the process by which the ITD policy was created and adopted.

States that she has been a General Counsel for a decade, and these are difficult issues to wrestle with in a world of rapidly evolving technology. Things are changing over night. But it’s important to note that we are looking for “best value,” and not any specific solution. We look at proprietary products and we look at open source – we don’t have a requirement of one or the other – we are looking for the best value solution in each case.

I completely applaud Mr. Cote’s desire to have a better system. What this is about is document life cycle management. Some documents not only need to be kept for long periods of time, but they need to be accessed as well. I agree that there is no crisis today, but more and more documents are created every day, and Microsoft is moving into an XML-based product. The problems that may cause haven’t hit Alan Cote yet – but the XML Revolution is on the horizon. If we don’t have a standard for such documents, we have a problem both now and in the future. When documents do get saved in XML, if they are created in a proprietary XML format, then some will not be able to open them. If a document is created in a proprietary format, then it might as well not be in electronic form at all, for some citizens.

If the birth certificate that we’ve all been using as an example today [Peter Quinn had earlier held one aloft] is needed in 100 years, no one will be able to open it if it’s not in an open format. If it is, then someone will be able to write the code to open it. That’s the problem we have on the horizon. We need to pay attention to these decisions.

Rep. Atkins asks a question: “What about email?”

Alan Yates, speaks first, but first says that he wishes to support Linda Hamel’s concerns about an XML-based future. It’s going to be work for a while, until all documents become open – there will be a transition period, and during that period, we think that choices will be helpful. Things may even get worse for a while before they get better. Long term, things look good. Short term – things will be tough for awhile as the necessary decisions are made and implemented.

Bob Sutor adds: this is a fascinating and important topic – we have to have the best standards, and we need to ask the hard questions: will there be default settings, and what will they be? Mr. Vendor, will you give me guarantees that you will not do this or that? Will you guarantee that I can participate? These are the type of questions that are critical. We can’t risk losing 10 years of history.

Judy Brewer asks: Alan Cote, can you tell me a bit about the formats that you are using now to address accessibility issues – it sounds like a different model?

Alan Cote: I don’t think we are; we are following the same model, and watching what can be done and what options may be available to the entire Commonwealth.

John Palfrey: I think that this isn’t really about paper records or philosophical questions. This is all about what’s happening today, and whether we will be able to access it tomorrow. My students don’t print anything out anymore – either as a document or as music on a CD – it’s created digitally, and it’s accessed digitally – they’re “digital natives.” How do we meet this problem. Documents are a legacy issue – we need to get out ahead of this digital environment.

Peter Quinn: It is difficult to address accessibility issues today; the products aren’t really completely up to the problem. Myra Berloff (of the State Office on Disability), would you tell everyone about how we are addressing this?

Myra Berloff says: When we heard about the new policy, I was besieged with email by those with accessibility issues. People expressed great concern, and not just those that are currently disabled, but also those that are aging and concerned about failing eyesight and other age-related issues.

It has been a pleasure working with Peter Quinn, and we are committed to a policy of not buying anything that does not provide accessibility. Our Memorandum of Understanding on this issue does not settle for a mere label of “accessible.” We will look more critically, and also be sure that we buy can transition. It’s a six page MOU [Is this MOU available anywhere?]. We will be sure not to leave a subset of anyone out.

Question from the audience: Bob Prokriff (sp?), President of [couldn’t catch it]. We are a vendor that is working with the National Archive on document preservation, and the single biggest concern they had was that the electronic records archive for the U.S. would not use proprietary formats, for the very issues discussed today. It is vital that our national records are not saved in a format owned by any single company. Ask yourself the question: what would we do if we needed vital documents created on a Wang processor 20 years ago? I think that the Commonwealth should be applauded for taking the lead among all the states in the Union in adopting this policy.

Stephen Chow, attorney(Perkins, Smith & Cohen), who states that he was involved in drafting an electronic document record proposal that was preempted by the State stands. What I’d like to say is that this must be addressed at a number of different levels. Where you slice the layers matters. Someone coming in at a different “slice” will not get the same degree of efficiency.

Alan Yates speaks to making the right choices along the way as the technical issues are addressed.

Bob Sutor says: we all agree on the layer that needs to be addressed and standardized. Vendor choices need to occur at the application level. Agree on the standard, and do different things at the application level.

Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe: Mr. Yates: The ODF standard already exists; how long will it be before the XML standard is productized and available? And Mr. Sproul, how long will it be before ODF will be the equal of Office with respect to accessibility?

Alan Yates: The two standards started from two difference design points: ODF was formed to meet committee requirements, and the XML format was created to work for Office users. Microsoft must focus on making this work well for Office users. Some day the two standards are likely to converge – that’s how these things work. There are people working on converters and filters. This problem will be solved over time.

Hiawatha Bray: You’re working on a deadline: will you be ready by January 1, 2007?

Alan Yates: We’re working on multiple deadlines, internal and Ecma. They each have their own schedule.

Bob Sproull: Its important to note that because ODF is open, that we can have a lot of help on this – it’s not just Sun. IBM, Sun and many others are contributing. And we’re also working on browser solutions as well. Will we meet your deadline? I don’t know. Software engineers never want to commit to a shipping deadline.

Bob Sutor: As you know, we’ve committed to an ODF product now – and we have committed to meeting the Commonwealth’s deadline.

Question from the audience (couldn’t catch name, but works on creating accessibility solutions for the State): What sort of incentive will there be to train those that will need to know how to use these accessibility solutions? Know that the blind community isn’t against ODF, but we are against a deployment that could cause the blind to lose the few jobs that we have – the jobless rate is already huge.

Dan Bricklin: If Massachusetts adopted ODF, would that solve your problem?

Answer: Not if the Commonwealth said that we couldn’t use Office because it was too expensive, and wouldn’t train us to use ODF solutions.

Peter Quinn: We want disability to never be an issue in the Commonwealth again; we want it to be not necessary to even think about this. And the more this goal permeates the industry, the more solutions there will be, and the lower the prices will be driven.

I pose a question from the floor, asking Alan Yates to comment on the following exchange from the Microsoft Q&A that was posted on Monday, reading the following outtake from the Microsoft Website:

Q. Why is Microsoft offering a new standard, rather than simply supporting the file format for the Open Office product (sometimes called ODF)?

A. Sun submitted the OpenOffice formats to a small committee in the OASIS organization. The record shows that there were almost no material changes to the OpenOffice specification from the time it was submitted to the time it was approved by the working group at OASIS. Sun timed the release of the OpenDocument standard in conjunction with the OpenOffice 2.0 release. The OASIS committee did not focus on the requirements, constraints, and experiences of Microsoft customers.

I remind Yates of our interview in September, and of the fact that I had also interviewed OASIS and Sun representatives, and note that from what I have been told in these interviews, that every contention (but one) in this statement is false. Moreover, the statement about the composition of the formats going into the process and coming out can easily be tested. I remind him that others have said that the ODF format changed dramatically, that Microsoft is a member of OASIS and knows that Sun could not control when ODF would be released, and that Microsoft could have taken part in the working group to ensure the best fit for Office users, but chose not to participate [ for more detail, see this post].

Alan Yates: Well, we were reacting to comments made about the Ecma process, and trying to make the point that both formats started from in-house sources.

Me: But do you stand by the statement that there were no real changes?

Alan Yates: I was coming at that from a different point of view; we’ve looked at the comment record, and saw thousands of comments, many from Sun, and I assume that they were reflected in the final code.

[I miss some comments, due to battery problems]

The Forum closed at approximately 12:35 after one or two more question and answer exchanges that I couldn’t catch. It was announced, however, that an open meeting on accessibility issues would be held on Friday.

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