In an abrupt policy reversal from just two years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided on Wednesday to allow government workers to employ Microsoft's Open XML file format when producing documents. Massachusetts also decided to approve the use of the Open Document Format (ODF), a rival system developed by the open-source community.
"The Commonwealth continues on its path toward open, XML-based document formats without reflecting a vendor or commercial bias," said Massachusetts Undersecretary of Administration and Finance, Henry Dormitzer, in a statement.
"Moreover, we believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards," Dormitzer said. "Therefore, we will be moving forward to include both ODF and Open XML as acceptable document formats."
Massachusetts' initial policy of excluding Microsoft from consideration was a bad decision, said Yankee Group research fellow and longtime Microsoft observer Laura DiDio, "because it was made without first considering issues such as total cost of ownership, the return on investment, or how it would affect disabled workers."
Competition serves everyone, DiDio said, because users get to see what's on the table and do side-by-side comparisons.
Although Massachusetts' reversal might seem to be a setback for the open-source community, DiDio said she doesn't see it that way. "In fact, it gives them the opportunity to shine," she explained. "They've been saying all along that they're better than Microsoft, and now they get the chance to prove it."
She also said that Microsoft will be forced to continue to improve its Open XML offering because "the open-source movement is the biggest and most serious competition that Microsoft has had since the early 90s when Microsoft was the challenger trying to unseat Novell's Netware."
Indeed, according to Dormitzer, the move by Massachusetts to embrace both specifications is predicated on the Commonwealth's belief that "both standards will evolve and improve" over time.
Not out of the Woods Yet
Many of the 460 comments that Massachusetts received in advance of rendering its final decision had expressed reservations about Open XML. But Dormitzer said that the state now believes that any outstanding issues would be "more appropriately" addressed through the international standards approval process, which is far from over.
Late last month the executive board of the U.S. representative to the International Standards Organization (ISO) said it had not yet decided whether to put its full weight behind Open XML when the ISO votes on the issue at its annual meeting.
"The International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) Executive Board has not yet determined the U.S. position on this ballot," said Jennifer Garner, the Director of Standards Programs, in a statement. However, Garner indicated that the INCITS process for developing a finalized U.S. position would meet the ISO's September 2 voting deadline.
This week's policy reversal by the Massachusetts is good news for Microsoft because "it certainly means that they are very much still in the game," DiDio said.