Politics, Sausages and Computer File Formats

by Lee Gesmer on November 2, 2005

Technology. Did you ever think you’d see politicians debating software file formats?

Massachusetts has become embroiled in a politicized debate over a state agency’s decision to move away from Microsoft’s proprietary standards and require that all state employees, commencing in 2007, save documents in two state-approved file formats: Adobe Acrobat PDF files and the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications.

The logic behind this issue is simple: if Massachusetts moves to Oasis OpenDocument, anyone with Internet access will be able to read state documents. As things now stand, if a document was created with Word or Excel (representing the two most common applications, word processing and spreadsheets), a citizen would need to have a licensed copy of Microsoft software to read the document. Of course, Microsoft claims that its Office formats are sufficiently open to satisfy the Commonwealth’s requirements.

Needless to say, there have been all kinds of business and political cross-currents swirling around this issue since it first emerged, and it has thrust the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (or ITD), which usually labors in obscurity, into the spotlight.

A comprehensive backgrounder on the entire issue was written by my partner Andy Updegrove, and is available here.

All of this came to a head (or perhaps the first of several heads), on October 31st, when the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight held a standing-room only hearing to question and investigate ITD’s decision.

Dan Bricklin attended the hearing, and provides both written observations and a recording here.

Laws and sausages, indeed.

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