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Future-proofing Government

What good are official documents if not everyone can read them?

You wouldn’t think that an obscure debate over application file formats would generate so much heat. But the rhetoric certainly heated up recently as the Massachusetts government debated the future–or more precisely, the future of government documents.

The questions start simply: In the future, what will citizens need to view government documents? Will citizens be able to view government documents at all? Will future software support documents created today?

These questions are very relevant since the dominant word processor, Microsoft Word, does not even support documents created by all older versions of Word. And, Word certainly doesn’t support documents created by all older versions of all other word processors. Older documents may already be difficult or impossible to open in modern word processors.

Furthermore, if Massachusetts adopted, for example, the Microsoft Word file format for all documents, what would citizens have to purchase in order to simply view government-created documents? This issue brings in a lot of other issues such as taxation and accessibility. Massachusetts citizens have already paid, via their taxes, for the creation of government documents. Should they have to pay again just to see the documents? Also, democracy advocates will have a big complaint if no one can see the documents created by the government.

In addition, most government contracts require bids by multiple vendors. If no other company could support Microsoft’s file format, or if Microsoft charged a lot of money for use of its file formats, then governments might fend up with projects that have only one bidder.

The problems are twofold: support for documents create by older versions of software, and the legal rights to view the documents. Will future versions of the word processing software support all documents created by older software? If not, then the older documents would become unreadable. In addition, if the documents are all stored in a format controlled by a single vendor, then access to these documents could become wholly dependent on that vendor’s software. The vendor could conceivably charge any amount for the software, or capriciously prevent certain groups from accessing the documents.

The Massachusetts government recently debated these issues and decided that all documents must support a new XML format called ODF, or the Open Document Format, by Jan. 1, 2007. ODF is a product of the work done on the office suite, and it’s a standard file format developed by OASIS, an XML standards body.

Microsoft argued strongly against the Massachusetts requirements. Microsoft claims its future XML format makes a better alternative to ODF. Massachusetts, though, wasn’t convinced, since the Microsoft format is protected by patents, which allows Microsoft to control who can and cannot use the format. The current Microsoft license, for example, has restrictions on redistributing applications using Microsoft’s patented technology.

What makes this situation odd is that Microsoft Word supports a boatload of file formats, including the formats of its onetime main competitor, WordPerfect. Microsoft could, if it desired, support ODF in its Word product. Microsoft, though, has stated that Word will not support ODF. Corel, makers of Word Perfect, announced support of ODF, as did Adobe and IBM.

The real issue underlying this dispute is that once Massachusetts adopts ODF, then it could adopt a competitor to Microsoft Word, including the free Writer application. If Massachusetts stays with Word’s format instead, it will become more and more difficult to ever change to a competing word processor. That’s called vendor lock-in, and Microsoft, obviously, wants some of that. –Eric Foster-Johnson

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