The Happy State of (ODF implementation in) Massachusetts

Q:  What will happen next?

A:  As originally planned, early adopter agencies will begin using converter technology to save documents in ODF format beginning in December of this year, thus meeting the goal of beginning the rollout of ODF by January 1, 2007.

Q:  What version of ODF will the converters work with?

A:  OASIS, the standards organization that developed ODF and submitted it to ISO/IEC for adoption as a global standard, has already adopted ODF version 1.1 as a Committee Standard, and the converters will support that version.

Q:  But what about the IT bond that failed to pass, that you focused on in your last blog entry.  Won’t that slow adoption?

A:  No.  None of the funding under the failed bond issue was earmarked for ODF implementation.  Other important upgrades will be affected, but not ODF.

Q:  It seems like anyone who supports ODF in government disappears, how to say, quickly.  Is supporting ODF a career-ender?

A:  No.  While it’s true that two Massachusetts CIOs took stands of principle and resigned their positions (on which more below), neither individual was fired or forced out.  In fact, the open standards policy that includes the ODF conversion was originally endorsed by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  Romney has consistently supported that policy in general, and (once it entered the news) the ODF conversion in particular, from the time it was first announced until this day.  His administration promptly issued public statements after each resignation stressing that the conversion to ODF would move forward.  It’s been common knowledge that Romney is considering a run for the U.S. presidency, so supporting ODF can hardly be considered to be a dangerous move for a public official.  Decommitting from it, however, might be seen as giving in to special interests.

Q:  But what about those two resignations?

A.  Let’s talk about Peter Quinn first.  Quinn cited two reasons for his departure.  The first related to a story in the Boston Globe that suggested that he might have accepted vendor payments for travel.  The story resulted in an investigation – but that investigation was conducted by the Romney administration in only a few weeks, and cleared Quinn completely.    In response to a request by me and others, the Globe’s ombudsman promised to investigate the incident and report his findings.  But he never did. 

The second reason for Quinn’s resignation was that he did not want to imperil the IT funding bill intended to fund a number of much needed ITD upgrading initiatives.  Quinn thought that his involvement with ODF was attracting unfavorable attention, and he did not want that attention to jeopardize the funding bill.

Quinn’s replacement was Louis Gutierrez, a very experienced and able IT professional with deep public and private experience.  He also enjoyed the full support of the Governor’s office, and moved ahead with ODF.  Unfortunately, the Massachusetts legislature was preoccupied with a number of bills that were higher on the priority list than the bond bill, including a controversial universal health plan that they debated for weeks.  The legislature adjourned without ever voting on the bond bill, and Gutierrez later resigned to focus public attention on the consequences of that failure.  In an email he sent to his staff, he described his decision as follows:

Because I have no remaining expectation of near-term action on the IT Bond, I have offered Secretary Trimarco my resignation, effective 30 days from now. It is my hope through this resignation to provide one additional window onto the situation, which I trust will someday be resolved, but which stands to set the state’s IT investment program back many steps the longer the lapse persists

In short, Gutierrez’s resignation had nothing to do with support for ODF.  In summary, it would be accurate to say that Massachusetts has been fortunate to have had two highly principled CIOs, each of whom had the full support of his governor, and each of whom was able to promote and further the ODF policy without concern for his job.  It would also be true to say that Massachusetts has not been as well served by its legislature, which listened to far too much misinformation, or its local paper of record, which went to press with a non-story that could have been debunked and avoided by means of a few additional phone calls.  You can read more on this saga here. 

Q:  All right, fair enough.  But what about accessibility issues?  Wasn’t the lack of accessibility tools supporting ODF-compliant software raised as a reason for Massachusetts not to move forward with ODF?

A:  Accessibility issues were raised as a valid issue last year, and OASIS as well as multiple vendors have worked steadily to address those issues.  The ITD also executed a Memorandum of Understanding last summer with the Massachusetts Office on Disability and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.  In the MOU, the state pledges to make the “transition to new or upgraded systems that are as seamless for people with disabilities as they are for people without disabilities.”  As part of that commitment, the ITD is ensuring that the converter tools support ODF 1.1, and not 1.0, because a feature of the newer version is improved accessibility support.  Leaders of the community of those with disabilities have praised the new policy and the ITD’s commitment.

Q:  But won’t ODF implementation be bad for the local Massachusetts’ software industry?  I’ve heard a lot about how ODF is open source.

A:  One of the persistent pieces of misinformation during the ODF debate was that “ODF is open source.”  ODF is an open standard – meaning a written specification created through an open process –  that can be used to create interoperable products that have greater value than products that are not built to open standards.  There are thousands upon thousands of other open standards specifications that are used to create everything from light bulbs to software to farm equipment.  Open source, in contrast, is a licensing and development technique used to create and distribute software.  Saying that ODF is open source is like saying that a blueprint is a building.

There is a significant relationship between ODF and open source, however, which is highly important: ODF can be implemented in both proprietary as well as open source versions.  And it already has been.  Public and private software users can choose today from a large number of office suites that comply with ODF, some of which are supported by major IT vendors such as IBM and Sun and are available for a fee with support, and some of which are available without charge from open source community projects, such as and KDE Office.  You can find comparative information about some of these products in these blog entries:’s OpenOffice, KDE’s KOffice, Sun’s StarOffice,   SoftMaker’s SoftMaker Office, and IBM’s Workplace.

Q:  So how would  you sum up?

A:  It’s hard to stop a good idea whose time has come.  ODF has been recognized to be a necessary element in the evolution of IT infrastructure, and to be a tool of particular importance to governments that wish to fulfill their duties to their current and future citizens.  It’s enjoying increasing support around the world from all types of public and private constituencies, and its mere existence has resulted in the modification of the behavior of proprietary vendors, such as Microsoft, that are now liberalizing their own licensing terms and making more technical details available to developers. 

While Microsoft’s Office OpenXML specification, now in the final stage of adoption at Ecma, still does not provide all of the advantages of ODF (no one is likely to use Office OpenXML to clone Office), continuing adoption of ODF and uptake of products that implement it will keep the pressure on vendors of all types to ensure that documents created today will be accessible tomorrow.  ODF has had, and continues to have, a vital impact on the marketplace that is highly beneficial to all stakeholders.  It’s important to remember that the greatest single factor that led to the breakout of ODF was the courage of a few public servants in Massachusetts that had a vision of what the future could and should be, and who also had the courage to commit to that vision and to see it through. 

We owe them a debt of gratitude.  I have no doubt that they will be remembered long after their more pedestrian peers in state government have been forgotten.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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Comments (5)

  1. If anyone who reads this lives is Mass., or beter yet Boston, it would be worth keeping up the questions to the Globe’s ombudsman.
    If he keeps getting demands for a response he may eventually give one.

  2. With Mitt Romney moving on to a presidential bid, I heard the new Democrat administration has already had meetings with a “major software vendor”. Is this to be of concern?

  3. My question is who will be chosen to be the new CIO?  Until that
    happens, we just don’t have a hint of where the ODF issue stands. We
    will soon find out where the new govoner stands when he selects the

  4. As an alternative to your analogy “Saying that ODF is open source is like saying that a blueprint is a building.”, may I propose: “Saying that ODF is open source is like saying that a blueprint is a union shop.” The idea is that a unionized shop is one, but not the only, way of organizing the creation of something from specific plans. Blueprints can be implemented (built) by a union shop or a non-union shop, and both kinds of shops can create things with or without blueprints. This may be better because a building is an implementation of a blueprint, rather than a way to get an implementation.

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