What Becomes Of States' Open Source Projects Now? - InformationWeek

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1/10/2006
07:58 AM
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What Becomes Of States' Open Source Projects Now?

It's doubtful that, in the wake of Massachusetts' open-source missteps, anyone in a state IT organization will have the courage to suggest state-wide adoption of open-source software for quite some time.

The resignation of Peter J. Quinn, the open-source advocate and CIO of Massachusetts who recently stepped down amidst an outcry over the state's proposed use of the OpenDocument Format (ODF), raises some larger questions.

The largest: who in any state IT organization will now have the, um, lower intestinal fortitude to dare suggest state-wide adoption of any open-source software? I have to believe that this whole mess will scare off anyone who wishes to continue working in his or her current capacity. And that's too bad. Used correctly and wisely, open source has the potential to save citizens money and, speaking as a taxpaying citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this seems like a shameful episode in a state that takes its politics, and its politicians, way too seriously.

For those who may have missed this story, which unfolded over the past several months, it pretty much goes like this: Peter Quinn and his IT group proposed, and got the department's supervisors and even Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to back, the notion of using ODF. This is an XML-based means of viewing and sharing documents, and the OASIS standard it's based on is supported by Sun and, most recently, IBM. The IT group wanted to adopt a standard so that the state's workers and citizens can continue to view today's documents in 50 years without worrying about software incompatibilities. And, equally important, the state wanted a choice of vendors and to avoid being locked in to one particular approach.

But Microsoft doesn't support ODF within Office and, when faced with the possibility of losing billions of dollars in this state and in any others that followed, the company submitted its own OpenXML format as a proposed specification to the ECMA standards group in Europe.

The result, so far, is that Peter Quinn and his former boss are both gone, or about to be, and the state appears to be reversing its position on the use of open-source software, although before it can do so formally it must wait for ECMA's official stamp of approval on OpenXML. Won't it be interesting if ECMA denies Microsoft's application--and that's a possibility since the Europeans generally take their standards much more seriously than we do here in the United States.

Full disclosure: Mr. Quinn didn't respond to my phone and e-mail queries about his status, why he left, and what happens now with the state's open-source project in time for this deadline. But before becoming Massachusetts' CIO, Mr. Quinn worked in the financial-services IT arena and was a founder of the Government Open Code Collaborative, a group established in June 2004 with the mission of sharing computer code that's been developed for government entities (assuming that sharing is allowed). I do believe we'll hear from Mr. Quinn again in an open-source context, or at least I hope so.

In the meantime, the relatively few public-sector users of open source software, including Mississippi for its mobile-data infrastructure and a vehicle-registration system in Chicago, are bound to feel very lonely for a while, at least, until the fallout from Massachusetts' open-source missteps dies down.

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