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4/19/2006
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Minnesota Standards Bill Could Affect Microsoft Word, Adobe

A bill that requires open documents is gathering support, and some of its provisions--such as no royalty payments and a need for human-readable documentation--may have some interesting ramifications.

Legislation calling for open data formats is gathering support in Minnesota. Passage could require proprietary software providers including Microsoft and Adobe to adhere to state-mandated documents standards. In the meantime, additional details on the proposed legislation have been disclosed.

In an interview Tuesday, state employee John Nesbitt said: "The bill doesn't promote any particular format, because it regulates NOT using a particular format. We're looking at all data and who owns our data and what can be done about it."

The legislation, for instance, goes to the heart of a struggle between Microsoft and some of its major competitors including IBM and Sun Microsystems over the next generation of office software. Nesbitt, who was referred by the bill's co-sponsor Representative Paul Thissen, said the legislation seeks to define characteristics that should be included in all state documents.

"For example," he said, "all information managed by the State must be in formats for which there are no royalty payments, human-readable documentation exists, and [which] new software can comprehend."

Although neither Microsoft, nor Adobe, nor the OASIS OpenDocument Format (ODF) are mentioned in the legislation, the problems of dealing with Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF -- both in widespread use in Minnesota state government offices -- are cited by Nesbitt.

In conducting a theoretical search of the Minnesota state Web site, Nesbitt observed that most of the results "come back as either HTML, PDF, or MS Word. The problem is that the latter two formats are owned by entities that could go out of business, charge significantly, make unannounced changes, sue others for creating similar technologies, act as a monopoly, or abort a product offering altogether. In those instances, there is very little the State could do about it."

Nesbitt referred to the recent situation in the Massachusetts state government in which a prolonged battle took place between Microsoft and ODF advocates. Nesbitt said the Minnesota legislation seeks to avoid such a direct confrontation by establishing open data formats that would be acceptable to all providers. Even so, he observed that the issue is highly charged.

Nesbitt said: "In focusing primarily on the data, the legislation allows for whatever implementation, life cycle, budget or administrative framework best suits those maintaining the information."

Nesbitt said the bill enjoys "grassroots support in the technical community" and has been picking up support in business circles. He noted that an effort several months ago to promote the use of open source software in state agencies had fizzled out. "Now, it's less open source and more open standards," he said.

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