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

Massachusetts' plan to standardize on OpenDocument -- a move that shuts out Microsoft Office from the state's buying process -- essentially amounts to a desktop application power play, says one expert.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts' plan to standardize desktop applications on OpenDocument, an open standard not supported by Microsoft Office, essentially comes down to a matter of control, according Stephen O'Grady, software expert and principal analyst with Denver-based consultancy RedMonk.

O'Grady has been following the story closely and explains that as a sovereign entity, Massachusetts feels the need to be in complete control of its desktop technology, rather than relying on a single company -- Microsoft -- for its office productivity needs. recently spoke with O'Grady to get a fresh perspective on Massachusetts' controversial move and to get his opinion on what the decision means for open source software adoption rates worldwide.

… if Microsoft wants to cater to customers like Massachusetts that make this decision, all it has to do is implement the OpenDocument format within its product.
Stephen O'Grady,
principal analystRedMonk

What is Massachusetts' main motivation for moving from MS Office to the OpenDocument standard?

Stephen O'Grady: Essentially, it's their belief that the state of Massachusetts, as a sovereign power, needs to exercise that power to protect its interests [for a] longer term. What that means in their terms is that whatever the basis for document interchange will be, it needs to be independently managed and owned. It can't be owned by a single commercial entity as Microsoft's OpenDocument alternative -- the Office Open XML formats -- is. It comes down to sort of a matter of control, and, in the case of the OpenDocument format, it's not controlled by any single party. Therefore, Massachusetts, as a sovereign entity, feels more comfortable with that approach longer term.

I understand the Commonwealth's move has generated some negative criticism. What are the critics saying and do you think they're making valid points?

O'Grady: The criticisms of the decision have typically centered [on] a couple of different points. [One is] the fact that there weren't any commercial packages available that supported [the OpenDocument] format. That has since been rectified. Sun has announced the availability of the StarOffice 8 suite, which does in fact support it, and IBM has committed to supporting it in its Workplace offerings before the end of the year. So that criticism I think is invalid.

What about those who say that this is strictly an anti-Microsoft decision?

O'Grady: That doesn't really work for me simply because the OpenDocument format is a standard that anybody can participate in. If Microsoft chooses to participate in it, it certainly can at anytime. [Microsoft] has not, to date, felt that its own Office Open XML formats are superior technically, which is certainly their right to believe. My contention has been all along that if Microsoft wants to cater to customers like Massachusetts that make this decision, all it has to do is implement the OpenDocument format within its product. It already does so for a number of other formats, including WordPerfect and RTF [Rich Text Format]. There are a number of different 'save as' options within Microsoft Word, so all it has to do is add the OpenDocument format to that list and all of the sudden they're competing alongside Sun and IBM and anybody who wants the business of the state of Massachusetts.

Do you expect other states to follow Massachusetts' lead?

O'Grady: Whether or not other states look to what Massachusetts has done and follow their lead, I think remains to be determined. I have heard some rumbling that there are a couple of other states that want to make some noise in that regard, but I haven't been able to confirm them.

How about governments abroad?

O'Grady: Outside of the United States, I expect OpenDocument to get significant take-up. That's attributable to a couple of factors -- economics, certainly. Microsoft Office, while it's a very polished and capable product, it certainly is not cheap. In Third World countries and developing countries, it's far more cost effective to rely on free and open source alternatives. I expect [OpenDocument] to get significant traction in markets like India and Africa. When we look to places like China or even the European Union, there are political concerns, I think, which would lead them to prefer a standard as opposed to something owned wholly by Microsoft. So I expect the OpenDocument format to get fairly significant traction abroad.

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