October 7, 2005

Citizens Against Government Waste vs. Massachusetts OpenDocument decision

Author: Jay Lyman

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is warning of the interoperability disadvantages and long-term higher costs of open standards and open source software again, this time calling the Massachusetts directive adopting the OpenDocument format as standard for the state "bad procurement policy."

CAGW has swiped at open source software, and Massachusetts' affinity for it, in the past. The group also has a long history of going to bat for Microsoft in its struggles with antitrust suits.

In its latest press release on the matter, the group seemed to confuse document formats with IT architecture and applications, blasting "a plan in Massachusetts to force all state computer networks to move to an open source format" and the state's supposed "mandate that state agencies use only open source and open standard software by January 1, 2007."

When contacted by NewsForge, CAGW president Tom Schatz said the statements, reprinted by several Linux and open source publications in the original form, were "wrong," and the organization's press release was subsequently changed to read: "CAGW today criticized a plan in Massachusetts to force all state agencies to shift all their documents to an 'open' format." Another correction to the release said the Massachusetts policy "would mandate that state agencies use only open formats for the storage of documents by January 1, 2007."

Despite conceding that every man, woman, child, and dog in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would not actually be forced to use FOSS for their computing, CAGW stood by its contention that the Bay State's move could give businesses and citizens "compatibility problems in exchanging documents with all of the state agencies."

When asked to explain the compatibility problems of the OpenDocument format, Schatz said his organization would like to see more information on the Massachusetts format policy.

"It's only one state," Schatz said. "At the very least, there should be more of a coordinated policy. We don't want a national policy, but we need to really consider the cost and really consider the long-term consequences."

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn told NewsForge there have been a number of such criticisms of the state's open document effort, many of which misconstrue the true meaning and impact of the strategy.

"It's been a combination of people trying to do the FUD factor and people sometimes don't get it," Quinn said. "We've said we're going to adopt a format approved by an international standards organization effective January 1, 2007. It's not anybody's technology. It's not procurement. It's a standard. There's nothing about open source or any of the rest of it."

In terms of compatibility problems, Quinn said the state is not asking businesses or citizens to change anything, adding that efforts to accommodate all state users will continue. Quinn stressed the reason for the open format requirement was the ability to continue accessing the state's growing stockpile of stored documents.

"This is about government sovereignty and history and keeping it available to citizens," he said.

CAGW also expressed concern in its press release over the cost of switching to and supporting openness, referring to additional costs caused by converting existing documents and retraining state employees on new software.

Quinn, and other supporters of the Massachusetts plan, have responded by highlighting the costs associated with a Microsoft Office upgrade, and have also indicated Microsoft and other proprietary vendors are welcome to bid on the state's business provided they, too, support the OpenDocument format.

"We are not locking ourselves into any set of technologies," Quinn said. "We're looking at a standard format. There are a number of technologies that can accommodate the format."

Highlighting the lock-in of using proprietary document formats such as Microsoft's, Quinn added his office's research indicates the time and training required for a Microsoft Office 12 upgrade would be the same for the state in terms of cost.

"It's a wash," he said.

CAGW's history as an opponent of open source has prompted a number of parties to connect the dots between the Reaganomics-borne group and Redmond.

Schatz declined to comment on Microsoft support of his organization, indicating the same goes for any source of the nonprofit group's funding. Microsoft has admitted funding CAGW in the past.

Will Rodger, director of public policy for the Open Source And Industry Alliance (OSAIA), said the latest CAGW press releases -- the first with the sweeping open source statements and the revised version criticizing of the interoperability problems and costs of an open document switch -- are only the latest in a pattern of misguided, alarmist, and exaggerated reaction to open source software and open technology.

"It is typical," Rodger said. "At one time, they had a reputation for fairly thoughtful documents. But they've really missed the boat time and time again. It shows they have an ax to grind. There's probably someone paying them to say it."

Rodger, whose industry organization represents open source developers and endorsed the Massachusetts OpenDocument policy, said there are federal and state CIOs watching the state's open format strategy, but they are doing so quietly.

"State CIOs are very much like CIOs in the federal government -- they're not particularly interested in having what they're doing with software become a political football," he said. "They're doing it quietly and under the radar."

Rodger also indicated CAGW might want to hang onto its original press release, as the Massachusetts move may set the stage for even more migration to openness and open source software in government.

"Massachusetts, in this case, is pointing to cases where open format documents make a lot of sense," he said. "Open formats generally do make a lot of sense for people who have to hang onto stuff for a long time.

"I don't know where the next skirmish will be, but we get the feeling the whole movement to openness and open source is really picking up," Rodger added. "This could be the big, first shot across the bow in the move to openness in all government."

Quinn said the interest in the Massachusetts document strategy goes beyond the US, with watchers in Europe, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere.

"We've got a really, really serious problem," he said. "Not a lot of people are taking a stand like us, but the format's the first part of it," Quinn said. "They're all looking at the whole issue of formats and their proprietary nature and where we go from here. It's not a technology issue. It's about standards -- open standards."

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