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OpenDocument support reaffirmed by Mass. officials

The mix of politics and IT in Massachusetts proved too difficult for CIO Peter Quinn, but the future is bright for OpenDocument today after state officials confirmed support for the standard would continue

Has IT prevailed over politics in Boston?

No sooner had I sat down to write about the resignation of Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn and the bleak outlook for the OpenDocument initiative in the commonwealth than the political winds had blown in the opposite direction.

Andy Updegrove, who maintains and who has chronicled the OpenDocument debate throughout 2005, sent word on Tuesday that state officials had confirmed they would continue supporting OpenDocument format (ODF).

According to Updegrove, Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Thomas H. Trimarco met with the Information Technology Division (ITD) general counsel Linda Hamel on Tuesday. He assured her that Peter Quinn's departure "will result in no change to the administration's position on the ODF standard."

There had been some uncertainty about whether this would be the course taken by the state, especially after Quinn's sudden resignation and the opposition to ODF from Microsoft and Sen. Marc Pacheco.

Pacheco was the chairman of the Senate's committee on Post Audit and Oversight and had called on Quinn to testify at a hearing in November when opposition had been raised by groups that believed ODF did not address the needs of disabled workers.

The hearing, to put it bluntly, was a train wreck. At times it appeared as though there were two different conversations going on at once.

On more than one occasion Quinn was asked to explain OpenOffice, the open source Microsoft Office suite alternative, when he was present to testify why the Commonwealth needed a switch to OpenDocument.

Dan Bricklin, the co-inventor of the first spreadsheet software VisiCalc, was present at that hearing as well. I remember because it was during the exchange above that Bricklin was shaking his head "no" -- subconsciously I'm sure -- to the line of questioning.

The hearing ended with a negative thud for advocates of ODF, as Pacheco ruled that the process be suspended pending further review.

In later weeks Microsoft pounced with an announcement that its Office Open XML formats had been given the green light by the international standards body Ecma International.

Hot to cold to hot to …

When Massachusetts officials publicly warmed to Microsoft's efforts to make its Office suite more open, the outlook for ODF couldn't have looked colder.

Today, however, with a definitive answer from state officials, it would appear as though the uncertainty over ODF in Massachusetts is waning.

For supporters of ODF, like those with the Free Software Foundation, the news will surely renew efforts to promote the standard in other governments and venues throughout the U.S.

For Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how much effort they continue to put into making Office Open XML as open as they would have us believe.

Now, as for Quinn, I do not know him on a personal level, but I reported on his presentations and seminars in the past, and I enjoyed watching him speak and promote open source at the government level. To see him leave an arena he has worked so hard to compete in is a shame, but it represents what other IT officials should expect if they wish to do battle at the government level.

When I spoke with Updegrove in December, he knew that both sides of the debate were working overtime with their lobbyists to get their side in the best light.

"I'm trying to be totally fair, so I have not personally run into any evidence of anything untoward by Microsoft.

"People can jump to the conclusion that Microsoft is behind everything, and that's not always the case," he said.

Updegrove, like Quinn, believed the dialogue over OpenDocument had become too political. "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," Updegrove said.

For more on the ODF debate:

Mass. CIO defends move to OpenDocument

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

This is true, but as for the future, I think it would be prudent to expect that any open source venture at the government level will be met with the same, if not greater, amounts of resistance in the future.

There are billions of dollars to be had in this arena, and you can bet that anyone with a stake in that will fight tooth and nail -- and with politics if necessary -- to keep control.

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