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IBM Warns on Open Documents

IBM Warns on Open Documents

In a subtle rebuke to Microsoft, IBM is warning vendors will have to be far more responsive to the mandates of government and business as governments around the world embrace open standards and open source.

The warning came after the US State of Massachusetts unveiled plans earlier this month to phase out Microsoft Office in favour of office productivity suites that support an open-document format from the OASIS standards body.

Echoing an earlier decision by the Australian Federal Government on its plans for long-term electronic document storage, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn announced the state would support the newly ratified Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocument, as the standard for its office documents. OpenDocument is an XML (Extensible Markup Language)-based file format that covers the features required by text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents.

The decision prompted open source advocacy and referral body Open Source Victoria to call on all remaining Australian states and government agencies to also adopt the format, claiming it as the only viable approach to ensuring guaranteed access to public sector documents and data in perpetuity.

And it has inspired Bob Sutor, IBM's Vice President for Standards and Open Source, to caution vendors against obstinacy in the face of the drive to open standards. Sutor says the Massachusetts decision should be taken as a warning sign for vendors. He says the decision should be seen as emblematic of the fact that consumers, or customers, are beginning to assert much greater control than vendors are used to, and that vendors, who have frequently used proprietary document and data formats to lock in customers, will have to respond.

"Vendors, whether IBM or any other company, now have to be far more responsive to the mandates of government and these companies," Sutor says.

Microsoft reportedly declared itself a "bit stunned" over the Massachusetts decision, with Brian Jones, a program manager in Office calling the results "unnecessarily exclusive" in his blog. The company has also consistently insisted its support of XML in Office and other products shows that it too, favours open formats for data interoperability and the archiving of public records.

And it has said it doesn't believe the public sector should force a single document format on its agencies, especially one that may be less functional than what they are already using. A spokeswoman recently warned Massachusetts that as various file formats, such as those for documents, photos, video and audio files, become more intertwined, it would be a mistake to support OpenDocument and not other XML schemas for different file formats.

Yet as a number of bloggers have pointed out, government officials in Massachusetts, Europe, and elsewhere have repeatedly warned the company to stop posturing and instead address customers' calls for unrestricted interoperability. Now there are signs many other governments are paving the way for adoption of XML-based office formats, which is likely to drive the rest of the industry to follow suit. This has led to speculation that Microsoft might end up being stuck with a proprietary format no-one wants to use.

Sutor says IBM is "very much in favour" of the decision by Massachusetts to use the OASIS OpenDocument format for all interactions with the State from January 1 2007, believing it will give it a way to maintain its history while interacting with its citizens in a way that doesn't require them to purchase an application from a particular vendor.

"Ultimately when people pay for things they want to pay for things that are really delivering new solutions to customers - that they want to keep paying for the plumbing over and over again. So what open source and open standards is doing, is delivering that plumbing so that customers and organizations like IBM can actually bring value much faster."

And Sutor says those vendors who have sought in the past to lock governments into proprietary standards must understand that the move to open standards makes them "eminently replaceable," and offers a lot of opportunity to smaller vendors.

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