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State may drop Office software

Report urges adopting new file format to ease sharing of information

Massachusetts state government may stop using Microsoft Corp.'s popular Office software by 2007, unless the giant software company adopts a file format compatible with other software brands.

The plan is embodied in a draft report issued Wednesday by the state's Information Technology Division. The document isn't the last word on the matter; the state is seeking public reaction before the plan is finalized.

The state currently stores documents in electronic formats that were created by a variety of companies, including Microsoft. These proprietary formats are incompatible with one another, making it difficult to share information between agencies. In addition, a particular format may be abandoned by a software company at some point. If the state buys new software, it might not be able to understand files generated by older programs.

The report recommends that the state embrace a new document standard called the OpenDocument format, which was issued in May by a consortium that includes Microsoft, IBM Corp., Dell Inc., aircraft maker Boeing Co., and the US Department of Defense. The OpenDocument standard is used in OpenOffice, a free software program available over the Internet, and in StarOffice, which is sold by Sun Microsystems Inc. But any company can adopt the standard, which is available free of charge. Microsoft Office file formats are the property of Microsoft and cannot be incorporated into software from other firms.

''The magnitude of the migration effort to this new open standard is considerable," the report says. ''Agencies will need to develop phased migration plans with a target implementation date of January 1, 2007."

If Massachusetts follows through, it will be the first US state to require that all documents be created in an open format. Such a move would boost the credibility of open file formats and encourage fresh competition against Microsoft Office, which holds over 90 percent of the world market in office productivity software.

''The way they've gone about this is brilliant, " said Sam Hiser, an open source software consultant who took part in the deliberations leading up to the report. ''The state is really leading the charge here."

The policy change wouldn't affect only Microsoft. The state uses other programs, such as IBM's Lotus Notes and the word processing program WordPerfect, that employ proprietary file formats. These products would also have to be replaced, or upgraded to versions that work with the OpenDocument standard.

Microsoft and other companies could keep doing business with the state government by adding OpenDocument as a standard file format. The upcoming version of Microsoft Office, due next year, will use a file format based on the open XML document standard, which is similar to OpenDocument.

But Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's information worker business strategy unit, indicated in an e-mailed statement that the company isn't interested in adopting the full OpenDocument standard.

''We do not believe . . . that the answer to public records management is to force a single, less functional document format on all state agencies," Yates said.

He added that the Microsoft XML standard will meet the state's need for a data format that will not become obsolete.

''When someone wants to move data from one type of system to another," Yates said, ''that will be relatively easy to accomplish."

The Computer Technology Industry Association, which represents software vendors, also criticized the proposed standard. Melanie Wyne, executive director of CompTIA's Initiative for Software Choice, said that implementing the standard would be costly to taxpayers. She said it would also put software companies with proprietary file formats at an unfair disadvantage when bidding for state contracts.

''The goal of archiving and storing citizen-centric data is commendable . . . but this plan misses the mark," Wyne said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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