In January 2005, Massachusetts became the first state to throw down the gauntlet in terms of moving all public documentation to a non-proprietary format. The justification being, that it shouldn’t be necessary to purchase proprietary software to use digital public documentation. Not only does it hold the constituents hostage in their need for a tool to read the proprietary format, but it also holds the government hostage in that the initiative to change off of any proprietary format is colossal.Fast forward a couple years. Barack Obama is talking about technology policy at the Google Headquarters. He seems to come down in favor of the standards based OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF) file format, though there is some debate on this point.

Does this really matter to the taxpayers?

It matters to everyone. For example: Constituents: If you were to receive a copy of a document in the MS Office format, and you didn’t have a current copy of the Office Suite -- or at least that particular application -- you would be unable to open that file as intended without a special viewer. Government: Implementing and managing the document management tools necessary to operate a documentation library for any good sized government agency is a significant chore in and of itself. But, when you consider the undertaking that it would be to convert document formats, it’s no wonder they would not want to do that more than once. Because of this, standards are highly compelling consideration when it comes to renegotiation of Office licenses. Microsoft: The business unit that manages the Office product set was responsible for nearly 30% of Microsoft’s revenue from sales in the third quarter of 2007. ‘Nuff said. They will protect that cash cow with everything they can.

OpenDocument Format on the National Stage?

Even if there is evidence that this is the right thing to do, does it warrant the national stage during a presidential election? Massachusetts’s adoption of standards based document formatting was important enough to Microsoft that they tried to create another standard, Open XML. Based on what I’ve been able to find, the primary problem Microsoft has with the ODF is its incompatibility with the Office document format. Now, that seems to me to be disingenuous, because of the fact that the inconsistencies in reading the file format are not related to the ODF file format at all, but rather due to the tool that is reading the file. A quality, I might add, that Microsoft has a vested interest in going out of their way to ensure. Apparently Obama feels that the government should be bound to standards and not bound to proprietary technologies. Reliance upon standards improves interoperability. It doesn't matter what the government decides should be it's office suite, or even their desktop OS. Once it's standards based, they'll be able to make it work without having to completely rework their document repositories ever again. And considering the U.S. government's ability to spend $600 (1983) on a toilet seat...that non-action is good, fiscally responsible news. And yes, from this angle its worth tackling the notion of digital openness on the national stage.

How Open is Enough

Microsoft was delivered a rejection notice this past September (see Microsoft Bid for 'Open' XML Format Gets a Big Thumbs-Down), when ISO denied the approval required to call Open XML an international standard. On the other hand the OpenDocument Format has been entitled to that trophy since 2006. Nevertheless, with the deep pockets and massive incentives involved in this struggle, it is one that is long from over. Stay tuned as the action and (public ?) debate continues.