The Boston IT Party

Once again, Massachusetts is in the middle of a revolt. And while the state may not go so far as dumping copies of Word over the side of the Eleanor, like the original Boston Tea Party, it’s the intention that counts.
Like an increasing number of Americans, I plan (once again) to file my 2005 tax return electronically. With the help of inexpensive software, I just fill out some forms, press a button, and the Internal Revenue Service collects its pounds of flesh. And while death and taxes (and tax forms) remain painful certainties, at least I can choose which way to go with the latter. Depending on my tolerance for risk, I can use the decidedly inventive Big Pussy’s 1040 Tamer or the more conservative Turbo Tax Deluxe. Both software packages do taxes — albeit with varying amounts of “flair” — and both are compatible with the government’s systems, thanks to the IRS’s e-file initiative, which sets standards for software interoperability. e-file is an excellent example of how a standard can foster competition and convenience, and both the IRS and the taxpayer benefit.
Given that experience, it makes me wonder why some are deploring the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s initiative to adopt (acceptably) open document formats by 2007. In particular, the state has proposed OpenOffice.org 2.0’s OpenDocument (ODT) format as the standard for read/write documents, and the widely-available and widely-supported Adobe Portable Document Format as the proposed read-only format. According to the state, moving to well-documented and liberally-licensed formats precludes dependence on a single vendor — something the state’s CIO, Peter Quinn, says is both ethically and financially irresponsible.
Critics, including eWeek columnist David Coursey, slam the Commonwealth, comparing its proposed mandate to waving a red cape at a raging bull — namely, bull Gates. Office, Coursey says, is well-liked, pervasive, and sufficiently “open” to do what state employees need to do. He questions Quinn’s motives: is Quinn playing a game of “chicken” with Microsoft? Does Quinn want vindication to subsequently move to Linux and a complete open source desktop? Does Quinn have a death wish?
So far, Microsoft hasn’t agreed to support ODT, and stands to lose Massachusetts’s Office business. However, Microsoft may just walk away, fearing that ODT support in Word merely invites (incites) Office workers to quit and move to StarOffice, OpenOffice, or some other tool that supports ODT. And it’s not about the expense of supporting ODT — Word already emits XML, so the changes for ODT are likely to be very simple. It’s down to a battle of wills: toreador Quinn and bull Gates.
But let’s not discount the other actor in the plaza de toros: the public. State employees produce documents and the public consumes them. Isn’t it biased to require Word to interact with government? One might also argue that requiring Word is especially onerous. Without the costly software and an approved platform (you cannot run Word on Linux easily), at least some of Massacusetts’s six million-plus residents would be disadvantaged.
I agree that Word may be the easiest choice for the state to make. But that’s the problem: a lack of due diligence has ensnared the Commonwealth — and countless other organizations — in a virtual monopoly.
Once again, Massachusetts is in the middle of a revolt. And while Quinn may not go so far as dumping copies of Word over the side of the Eleanor, like the original Boston Tea Party, it’s the thought that counts.

Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine.

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