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Updegrove: Mass. OpenDocument debate to remain on 'front burner' in 2006

Jack Loftus

There are few people in the online community who have been as outspoken about the OpenDocument format (ODF) dealings in Massachusetts IT these days as Andrew Updegrove.

Updegrove maintains a blog at ConsortiumInfo.org, an online source of information regarding standards, standard setting, and open source software and on the role that these essential tools play in business and society. Updegrove's technology law firm, Gesmer Updegrove LLP, which is based in Boston, hosts the site.

Instead of taking a mad, conspiracy theorist's view of what has transpired between politicians, Microsoft and the pro-ODF groups, like the Free Software Foundation -- as many have done in the Commonwealth and abroad – Updegrove has taken documents and legislation as they are filed and has dissected them on his blog so that users can make up their own minds about this potentially monumental decision.

While a lot has happened with ODF and Massachusetts in the past year, Updegrove predicted that the debate will become "front-burner news" when the state senate reconvenes following the winter break.

In this exclusive interview, Updegrove gives readers a refresher course on how something as simple as how a digital document is saved and archived could affect IT policy across the U.S. The potential for shady dealings exists in Massachusetts, Updegrove contends, but so far everyone -- from both sides of the debate -- appear to be playing by the rules.

The OpenDocument debate

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is an important event for government IT, open standards, for freedom in software. Is there a danger that this has become too political?

Andrew Updegrove: I think, as far as Massachusetts is concerned, the ODF decision has become a pawn in a political power play, and now the debate is in a dominion of politics that IT, decidedly, has rarely experienced in the past.

So, yes, [the ODF debate] really has become hijacked by political forces in the Commonwealth and obviously the debate has been encouraged by independent opponents to ODF as well. To put it another way, if you wanted to shoot down ODF you couldn't have been luckier with fault lines in Massachusetts to work with.

There appeared to be some confusion on the part the committee members at last month's hearing on Beacon Hill in Boston as to the differences between open standards, open source and even OpenOffice. How has this affected the outcome?

Updegrove: In the early stages, I think that kind of confusion was an issue, and it was an issue that was being exploited by people urging [the chairman of the committee on post audit and oversight] Sen. Pacheco and others to stand in way of policy. I think at this stage the issue has disappeared into the background because what is really happening is a struggle over who in Massachusetts government will control IT at all.

However, if we look at the back end of this political game, let's assume the task force [recently added to a Senate economic bill to exclusively control state IT] does go through. That task force could presumably throw out all the progress to date, and then all of that confusion mentioned earlier could become relevant again. One could imagine a bunch of politicians -- and remember that the proposed task force composition is five politicians and only two to three other IT people that know anything about what's going on with ODF -- one could imagine people saying who cares if this implementation is open source or open standards or not, let's just stick with Microsoft.

The real danger is not the idea that Microsoft formats become approved, because that could be fine if Microsoft actually could follow through with what it said it was going to do. If Microsoft meets the terms of the original policy, then by all means the policy should be accepted. If the Microsoft standard is deserving of being adopted, then by all means it should be adopted. The real danger, and it would be regrettable, is if the standard was changed to the point where all they did was use Microsoft formats and not allow the ODF formats.

For more on the Mass. OpenDocument debate:

Mass. CIO defends move to OpenDocument

Mass. plan to dump MS Office for OpenDocument a 'matter of control'

Although the story has been all but debunked today, what bearing did the travel expenses of Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn have on the ODF debate?

Updegrove: First of all, the travel expense debate is indicative of the way the game gets played in Massachusetts, unfortunately. But, I think if one wanted to have a conspiracy theory, it would be this: We already know that CIOs in other states are considering ODF, and we also know that they are nervous about what such advocacy would mean for them as individuals.

It is hard to imagine any government politician who has not at some point not done all their paperwork when traveling. But if you wanted to make an impression on a state CIO as far was what's going to happen to you if you push ODF, it would be hard to think of a better way to make such an impression than to encourage a reporter to encourage an investigation into Peter Quinn's travel expenses. Even if you leave that idea aside, certainly Peter's experience would not be one to encourage CIOs to be the next leader in calling for ODF in their state.

You recently filed a formal letter of protest with The Boston Globe ombudsman. Have you heard back from him yet?

Updegrove: No, I have not heard back yet, but I would assume that at the very least some people would have followed up with calls and letters of their own.

At last month's hearing, Massachusetts Information Technology Department (ITD) general counsel Linda Hamel did not specifically accuse those groups who oppose ODF of having Microsoft backing, but she came close. Was she out of line? How was she correct or incorrect in her remarks?

Updegrove: I think I've said something to this point in recent entries [on ConsortiumInfo.org], but if Microsoft is behind things, they have been extremely skillful in keeping it below anyone's ability to discover that fact. I'm trying to be totally fair, so I have not personally run into any evidence of anything untoward by Microsoft. That being said, I also know that both sides have their lobbyists, and I can also assume that both sides' lobbyists have been very active.

One doesn't have to assume dirty tricks in order to assume efforts are being made by both sides to be as influential as possible -- that's just the way the world works. One can assume Microsoft has been in as much contact with politicians as it is able to have, and this is just as true for other players. People can jump to the conclusion that Microsoft is behind everything, and that's not always the case.

Much has been made of -- and Mass. has warmed to -- the fact that Microsoft pledged to open up Office XML to Ecma [an industry association dedicated to the standardization of Information and Communication Technology and Consumer Electronics] and ISO standards. How big of a setback has this been to the movement? Does Microsoft appear to be genuine in its desire to really open up?

Updegrove: Well, in trying to be fair, there is no question that ODF events have moved Microsoft to be more open than they were before, which is a good thing. And if one were to, again, be totally fair to people on both sides, there is nothing unusual about picking the venue where you expect the decision to be most in your favor. This is done in standard settings all the time.

To pick Ecma is no different than the approach taken by other companies. But to be scrupulously fair, at the end of the day it is hard to imagine that the XML schema would be as useful to the individual in one sense as ODF formats would be because they were the product of two entirely different processes. One group's efforts address a consensus of goals, whereas the other one was derived solely from an optimized user experience from a single product.

As far as openness, I think in one of my blog entries I pointed out that there are three things going on here. One is the tunnel vision and how this looks from inside Microsoft, and how their actions are leading it to a very limited covenant. On the other end, there is deliberate game playing. At this point in time one cannot tell definitively, and people's true intentions can only be demonstrated by actions going forward. I do think if Microsoft wanted to, if it was in fact just tunnel vision, it could easily end all of the questions asked by making additional commitments about its future intentions. People have their suspicions of Microsoft, but Microsoft could very easily solve that by making new commitments.

About that new task force that has been tacked onto the economic bill in the Senate ... You ask in your blog why any sane person would want to do this. Explain briefly what you said in that blog entry and what this task force would be allowed to do?

Updegrove: The most important thing to know from that post is that the power that would be given to this task force would be like giving a city council authority over the type of antibiotics, anesthesia and medical instruments that are to be used in a hospital. Now, how much sense does that make?

If Massachusetts were to accept ODF, thereby dismissing Microsoft, what have you heard from other state legislatures or governments about this spreading?

Updegrove: I'm not really in tune with that, but I can say I have heard in no uncertain terms from the proponents of ODF that what happens in Massachusetts will have no impact on their support for ODF as they attempt to push it forward elsewhere. I do know there is a state CIO conference in California coming soon, and from what I've heard, that meeting is the next gathering that might be interesting in terms of the news that might come out of it.

When is the next big vote or hearing so that supporters of either side of this debate can attend or follow up on?

Updegrove: On Wednesday, Dec. 14, there is a purely open meeting, not before the committee that isn't actually hearing. It is an informal meeting, so it's unlikely that anything is going to happen this year. Technically, though, it still could. This certainly will be a front-burner issue when the legislature reconvenes in the new year.


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