Three states are looking to legislate procurement and use of computer software formats for document storage, triggering a new round of debate over whether such laws actually benefit citizens and save money or simply provide a government-aided advantage for competitors of Microsoft.
A bill requiring the state information technology department to use software that creates, processes, and stores documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in formats defined by the industry as open standards was read and referred to the Texas Senate’s state affairs committee in late February. Identical legislation is under consideration in the Texas House.
Similar legislation was introduced in California in late February. A Minnesota bill, also introduced in February, revised legislation introduced last year that never made it out of committee.
At issue is how states will preserve electronic documents to ensure they can be accessible far into the future.
Some observers fear that documents stored in a proprietary format, such as the binary file format used by Microsoft Word, will be unreadable by computer systems of the future. They are urging states to require their IT departments to restrict purchases to software that conforms to open standards such as the OpenDocument Format (ODF). ODF is supported by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as well as large vendors such as IBM and Sun, which use it in office applications software that competes with Microsoft.
Compounding the complexity, ODF is also used in open source software, such as OpenOffice.org, which is available for free.
Under a directive issued by its former state IT director, Massachusetts mandated use of ODF last year. Although the mandate remains in place, it reportedly has been loosely enforced. The format has been mandated in several European countries as well.
Critics of the proposed legislation say it is overly broad and often confuses the terms “open standard,” “open source,” and “royalty-free.” (See glossary on this page.) Free-market analysts, in particular, say the laws give an unfair advantage to vendors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems, which provide open source software to states at little or no cost but then enter into long-term contracts to maintain and update state IT operations.
While the legislation under consideration in California, Minnesota, and Texas doesn’t specify the type of file format to be used, the proposed laws call for interoperability among diverse internal and external platforms and applications. The measures also require that standards be fully published by the original vendor or cross-industry development group and available royalty-free, implemented by multiple vendors, and controlled by an open industry organization with a well-defined, inclusive process for evolution of the standard.
Software such as Sun’s StarOffice, which uses ODF, fits that definition. Microsoft Office does not.
Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology in Washington, DC, notes for all the interest state governments have expressed in ODF, other enterprises have not embraced it.
“A policy such as this is flawed on a number of accounts,” Zuck said. “It selects a brand new ‘standard’ that no one has used yet, [which] has no installed base or testing.
“The heavy lobbying by IBM and Sun has paid off, but there will always be things overlooked in such a case,” Zuck continued. “For example, the desire to exclude [Microsoft] Office in Massachusetts led to outrage [among] physically handicapped state employees whose work is greatly facilitated by the accessibility features in Office.”
The real problem with picking a standard at a state level is that it will always fall short, Zuck said.
“The state should set requirements for a document standard, such as it must be open to all to implement and available into perpetuity,” Zuck said. “That way, more than one document standard could be used as long as it met that criteria.” Laws that specify formats, either explicitly or implicitly, come at the expense of the user and stifle innovation, according to Zuck.
“What about file formats that are yet to be conceived? For example, a small business might have a new eBook format making it easier for the state to put manuals on-line,” Zuck added. “The state couldn’t use this superior document format because it wasn’t one of the chosen. Bad for innovation, bad for the state, bad for its citizens.”
For its part, Microsoft has submitted Open XML, its new file format, to the ISO for designation as an open standard. ECMA, formerly the European Computer Manufacturers Association, has already declared Open XML to be an open standard. If approved and adopted by companies other than Microsoft, it could theoretically fall under the description of an open, XML-based file format as outlined in the state bills.
Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.