Free those digital documents

Deciding what kind of software Massachusetts wants to load on some 50,000 state computers may sound like something of interest only to über-geeks. But that decision could spark a revolution in how software is developed and sold.

The Commonwealth wants to adopt an "open document" standard by 2007. It would allow vital electronic records to be readable far into the future because they wouldn't depend on a single company's exclusive product. At the same time, it would create a more competitive software industry.

Massachusetts would be the first state to require an open-document system. But other states, local governments, even other countries, are watching with great interest. Much is at stake because if governments begin requiring such an open system they could greatly influence what is used in the private sector as well.

Microsoft Office from Bill Gates and Co. is the standard in Massachusetts, as it is nearly everywhere. Used to create documents and spreadsheets, Office is a "closed" system that doesn't operate well with competing products. Since computers need to send files easily between them, Office has driven out competitors and controls 90 percent of the world market. Microsoft only offers new features when it decides to.

An open-document system would require vendors to sign on to a technological standard whereby documents could be transferred and read using any open-document software. "I always think of Legos; [each company represents] different shapes and colors, but they all snap together," says Peter Quinn, in charge of technology planning for the Bay State.

An open system will lead to more choices for consumers, more innovation, and, because of the variety of products, will present more challenges to hackers. Companies would still charge licensing fees (as does Microsoft) or devise other payment systems, but they would have to compete for the best price and features.

Massachusetts has a point when it worries about document accessibility hundreds of years from now (or the paying of royalties to read files). What happens if Office goes obsolete and Microsoft no longer supports it? What happens to all those documents? In an open system, the software needed to read them would be openly available.

Among products already compliant with the open-document system are OpenOffice, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, and IBM's Workplace. Any Microsoft product that conformed to the open standard could compete as well.

Opponents of open documents, including Microsoft, argue that Office is a familiar platform that works well. It also offers unique features, including some that help the disabled use the software more easily. But Massachusetts workers who need these features will be allowed to stay with Office until an open-format vendor provides equivalent features.

An open-documents world can ensure that hundreds of years in the future people will still know the code to read mankind's records. And it will spur price and quality competition. Just look at the telecom industry, whose intense rivalries have brought price cuts and innovative services.

Freeing software from a monopoly should reap similar benefits.

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