Massachusetts Gets New CIO to Oversee OpenDocument Migration

Pushing forward with a plan to set aside Microsoft Office productivity and document management tools in favor of an open format, Massachusetts has hired a chief information officer to oversee the switch.

Since the announcement halfway through 2005 that the commonwealth would favor software programs that conform with the OpenDocument Format, controversy has erupted. The fallout may have spurred the resignation of its former CIO, who was the chief architect of the migration.

On Monday, Gov. Mitt Romney appointed Louis Gutierrez, who had been in charge of technology for the medical school at the state’s university system, as chief information officer.

One of the new CIO’s main tasks will be carrying out a planned shift to open document format. Current timelines call for all agencies to have documents available in open format by early next year.

The appointment is significant because the Bay State is being closely watched by the software industry as it makes a bid to break free of the Microsoft standard for desktop document handling.

It’s also key because there was some concern that the controversy surrounding the recent resignation of former CIO Peter Quinn, who had drafted the policy that calls for the shift, would derail or delay it. In making the move, Massachusetts could become a bellwether, prompting other governments to follow suit.

Steady as She Goes

Quinn resigned under pressure after numerous newspaper articles raised questions about his attendance at open-source community events and whether it was appropriate for him to be attending such conferences while contemplating the switch to an open-source-friendly format for public documents. Though he maintained he had done nothing wrong and was backed by the administration, Quinn resigned, saying he didn’t want to become a distraction or embroil the migration in controversy that could stall its progress.

While stopping short of a full-fledged endorsement of the open-document effort, Gutierrez said he supported the notion that “the application of open standards that interoperate with many kinds of technology and vendors” would lead to an improvement in the way the government conducted business with the public, vendors and other key partners.

“As technology continues to evolve, there remain substantial opportunities to transform services and a need to plan for the long-term future of technology-infused operations,” he added.

Still, his appointment was accompanied by a statement saying he would “be responsible for overseeing the final stages of implementation of the state’s new OpenDocument format proposal.”

Whether Massachusetts can keep its migration from Microsoft Office on track for January 2007 completion remains to be seen.

Even from the outset, Quinn had acknowledged that some agencies may take longer than others to make the switch, but he had expected all government departments to have a plan in place by later this year to make documents available in OpenDocument-friendly formats.

Impact Debated

Microsoft has made some moves to address the quest for interoperability, adding more openness to its software and saying that upcoming versions of Office would have more such features, including the ability to easily save Word and other documents in PDF form readable with Adobe Acrobat.

The software giant also said it would submit the next version of Office, known as Office 12, to an open-standards review body for certification that its XML format would make it compatible with many other software applications.

Microsoft’s efforts to make its products work with other platforms are being viewed with skepticism — which is not a surprise, given the company’s history, said Enderle Group principal analyst Rob Enderle.

“A lot of the open-standards effort that’s gone on in the past has been driven by anti-Microsoft sentiment,” Enderle said. “That makes it inherently difficult for Microsoft to be viewed in the same way as some other software makers who don’t have the same history of proprietary format and market dominance.”

Still, Massachusetts has left the door open for Microsoft. While the policy requires interoperability, it does not specify a single format for documents, making it possible that a Microsoft suite shown to be compatible with formats such as PDF would be deemed acceptable for use in some agencies.

If nothing else, Microsoft may be able to convince the state to let its products be part of a larger menu of open document management tools.

That in itself would be a victory for Microsoft compared to the state’s complete migration away from Office even as a new version of the software reaches the final stages of development.

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