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Answering David Coursey on Massachusetts and Openness
Thursday, September 08 2005 @ 10:22 PM EDT

David Coursey has written an odd and befuddled reaction to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts choosing OASIS OpenDocument format. I was just settling down to answer him, trying to get into kindness mode first, when I came across Sun's Simon Phipps' blog entry, which answers Coursey better than I could. And with Simon's kind permission, I present it here.

I would add this: there are a number of factual mistakes in the article, in addition to the big-picture items that Simon addresses. The one that I think matters most is this: Coursey seems to think that you can't use OpenDocument format with a Microsoft computer. You can. You can download and use OpenOffice.org or StarOffice, for example, and use it on your PC with Windows. Because he doesn't realize that, he posits that it's his gut feeling that Peter Quinn is implementing some secret plot to force a change to Linux. That's silly. Well, actually, it's mean, and totally untrue. You can run OpenOffice.org on Windows, as well as on Linux or a Mac, and it's a free download, so no one will be "locked out", as he seems to imagine, or forced to change operating systems.

Think of it like Firefox. It's Open Source software, but you don't have to run a GNU/Linux system to use it. You can use it with Windows or with a Mac or with Linux. Anyone can use it, no matter what operating system they are on. That is the goal in Massachusetts, to make sure everyone can have equal access, without dictating a particular product or a particular operating system.

As for Coursey's suggestion that, if one must choose something other than Microsoft's Office, he thinks Adobe's PDF is a better choice, I suggest he must never have tried OpenOffice.org or he'd know there are certain kinds of documents you can create in an office suite that you can't in PDF format, and for that matter, there are certain functionalities that are missing in PDF too. OpenOffice.org, as its name suggests, provides the kinds of functionality that Microsoft's Office offers. Would he say that PDFs could replace Office, that we should all use only PDFs for all our documents? I think he needs to rethink that.

He says he isn't an "ideologue", but a suggestion like that comes across like a crotchety old man determined not to try anything new at best and an ideologue at worst. If, for example, I want to create a document I know others will be editing later, is PDF a good choice? What if I want to do a presentation? Think, David. Think.

But factual errors and unfair aspersions against Mr. Quinn aside, there is a bigger picture here, which is that Massachusetts is trying to ensure that our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will still be able to open the documents we create today, even if Microsoft is no more. And that is what Simon addresses.

************************

Coursey is wrong on Massachusetts
-- Simon Phipps

I just read an article by David Coursey, Massachusetts' Move to Open Format is Close-minded, and I'm afraid he has it totally wrong - too much time spent drinking from the fountain of Redmond wisdom, I fear. He criticises the proposal by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to mandate a policy of using open formats for its business, saying

"I am not sure what the real problem is with using Microsoft file formats. No, they are not open, but they aren't completely closed, either. There are a number of non-Microsoft apps that support them. That makes Microsoft file formats "open enough" for many users."

What a short-term view. The real point is not what applications are available today; it's that allowing the use of formats that are under the control of a single party - without transparency of process or involvement from any other interested group - results in what I call "corporate Alzheimer's", where you are condemned to be unable to use your documents at some point in the future where the tools available today that access the format are no longer available and/or usable. This becomes even more of an issue once the format gets wrappered in DRM, which causes early onset of corporate Alzheimer's. That's the reason the National Archive of Australia was involved in defining OASIS OpenDocument - to ensure future historians are able to access digital source documents key to Australia's history. If we don't use open standard formats, we are doomed to forget.

Coursey goes on to say

"[Mr Quinn has] created the 2007 requirement for an open storage format to create an excuse for removing Microsoft Office from state workers' desktops."

My word, that is worthy of a Microsoft press release. Microsoft could most likely add the same level of support for OpenDocument as they have for previous versions of Word, for WordPerfect and for about 20 other file formats, and do it easily by 2007. Members of the OpenDocument committee tell me they put in a great deal of effort to ensure the format was capable of easy conceptual mapping to MS Office formats, not least because of the need to make the writing of conversion filters easy.

The truth is exactly the opposite of what Coursey asserts. Massachusetts are not anti-Microsoft when they make this decision, as they are at pains to explain - they are pro-openness. Any company that chooses not to support the open, standard format excludes themselves, they are not being excluded by Massachusetts.

The effects of allowing public administrations to use software that flouts standards are painfully clear, as the examples of the Copyright Office and of FEMA have made clear. Sun, like IBM (well done, Bob) have written to Mr Quinn in Massachusetts to endorse the decision, which is principled, wise, brave and most importantly pro- rather than anti-competitive. It seems so obvious that in the participation age documents need to be long-term readable in any word-processor that the only way to object is by invoking FUD and XML schema.

Coursey does get one thing right, though. He says

"I encourage Microsoft to meet Massachusetts' demand by opening its own formats or, alternately, teaching Office to read and write the OpenDocument format."

That's what we've all been saying for years, and the fact they have done neither (their formats are not open because of restrictions on who can implement them and because control is not shared) will be their downfall. Failure on both counts means only the latter is open to them, and they would be well advised to stop FUD-ing and get on with it.


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