updated 11/4/2005 2:38:23 PM ET 2005-11-04T19:38:23

The Revolutionary War started in Massachusetts, and now the state is firing some opening rounds in a revolt against Microsoft Corp. that seeks an open, proprietary-free format for storing electronic documents.

Gov. Mitt Romney's administration has directed state government's executive offices to begin storing new records by Jan. 1, 2007, in a format that challenges Microsoft's market-dominating Office software, which isn't yet designed to support the new standard.

Massachusetts is the first state to take the step, but others are closely watching a fight drawing comparisons to the battles at Lexington and Concord that opened the Revolution.

"It may be the technological equivalent to the shot heard 'round the world," said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst. "If Massachusetts follows through with this plan, it will be a radical departure from how Microsoft and other businesses work with state governments."

Massachusetts' shift to the so-called OpenDocument format seeks to ensure the state's electronic records can easily be read, exchanged and modified now and in the future, free of licensing restrictions and compatibility problems as software evolves.

Microsoft and other critics of the change have warned in public hearings that the state is narrowing its options by banking on an untested format that may not work with many of the state's Office-based computer systems.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company also argues the switch will hurt citizens and businesses using Office who may find state records don't translate well when they read them with their software. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Among the programs that do fully work with the OpenDocument format are Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice and free products such as OpenOffice.

Microsoft is trying to stem the rebellion's spread to other state governments and the private sector. Businesses sometimes follow the lead of government database managers, and software vendors try to tailor their products to government clients' preferred format.

"There is a lot at stake for Microsoft," said David Smith, a Gartner Inc. analyst. "If this were to become a tremendously successful initiative, it could perhaps open the floodgates to other governments and business enterprises doing the same thing."

Similar proposals in Oregon and Texas have been shot down. But officials in several other states including Rhode Island and Wisconsin continue to express interest in moving to the new data standard, said Jack Gallt, assistant director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Peter Quinn, Massachusetts' chief information officer, testified at a recent legislative hearing that the switch to OpenDocument aims to transform the state from an information technology "Tower of Babel to an IT United Nations."

The move will affect about 50,000 desktop PCs used by state government, many now equipped with Office software.

Quinn has said computer systems using Office will be retained and not dismantled unless a cost-effective way is found to replace them. Agencies using Office software can continue doing so, as long as they begin saving documents in OpenDocument format.

The switch involves only agencies within the executive branch, and doesn't apply to courts, the Legislature, and constitutional offices. It also doesn't apply to the state's Microsoft-based e-mail system.

Massachusetts isn't alone in its campaign. The European Union and U.S. Library of Congress have in principle embraced OpenDocument as their preferred format.

Several foreign governments also have endorsed the broader movement toward open-source software and the Linux operating system, which uses publicly available software code that can be customized.

Because such software does not carry licensing fees, proponents cite cost savings and say open source is less of a target for hackers. Critics say the savings can disappear in the long run when service costs are factored in, along with compatibility problems pairing Microsoft systems with other products.

Microsoft uses proprietary code for most of its products, protecting them with copyright and patent licenses restricting other developers' ability to write programs that support Microsoft software.

The OpenDocument format was created by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a nonprofit, international consortium that sets data standards. Its membership includes Microsoft rivals such as Sun and SAP AG.

Microsoft said in June that Office 12, the next-generation version due next year, would use a different format that would make it easier for outside programs to read documents created in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Microsoft is adopting a standard called XML that lets data be shared across different systems with a uniform appearance.

But critics say that switch will still leave some code off-limits and fall far short of the OpenDocument format's minimal restrictions on developers who write supporting applications. Microsoft has said it may rely on "filters" to convert documents from one standard to another rather than building that capability within Office 12.

Microsoft hopes Massachusetts legislators will slow or halt the Romney administration's directive. Some legislators and other state officials question the cost and legality, and cite objections from visually impaired people who find Office software easier to use than rival products.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democratic committee chairman who ordered the legislative hearing, said he wants Quinn's office "to stop and to collaborate with the necessary agencies before moving ahead with this process."

Alan Yates, a Microsoft general manager, said the company was "encouraged by the additional review that the Legislature is pursuing to better understand the costs and issues associated with the existing Massachusetts policy."

Romney spokesman Felix Browne said it was too early to say whether the plans to switch to OpenDocument might be altered.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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