The Boston Herald.
Monday, March 13, 2006.
By Jesse Noyes.
In the hot debate over open-source software in Massachusetts government, some disabled people feel they've been left out in the cold.
Gov. Mitt Romney is still marching towards adopting open standards in the executive offices of the commonwealth by the beginning of next year. But the disabled community is voicing its displeasure with the policy, claiming the state's timeline neglects their needs.
"Until we let out a loud yell no one paid attention to us," said John Winske, president of the Disability Policy Consortium in Massachusetts. "They were going to do it before we came along, and I think unless we keep raising the issue they're going to go ahead and keep doing it."
Disabled state employees, who depend on assistive technologies to create and edit computer documents, say they could get steamrolled in the rush to a universal format in the state's executive offices.
Proponents of ODF say users can take advantage of a variety of programs without being locked into a proprietary vendor's software, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite, and keep archives readable no matter what happens to the company.
For disabled workers, extra technologies - such as readers, which render text into Braille for the blind, and dictation applications - are needed to carry out tasks on computer documents. Those technologies, which are largely developed by third-party vendors, are primarily tailored to Microsoft's products, the dominant software in government offices.
Moving to the largely untested ODF by January could result in additional costs for upgrades and training, Winske said.
The concern from advocates has forced Romney's administration to back down from a hard-line implementation date. Officials now say they'll push back the January 1 date if all the accessibility hurdles are not cleared by then.
A Romney spokesman said Friday that disabled workers won't have to carry the costs for updated technology or training.
"The disabled community will not be asked to bear additional costs," said Felix Browne, a Romney administration spokesman. "Over time, it's possible that costs for the disabled could decline due to open-source and competition."
ODF backers say the costs of transitioning from one piece of software to another are bound to occur whether users upgrade to open-source software or Microsoft's upcoming Office 2007 product.
"If you took Open Document Format completely out of the equation (the cost) would still not be zero," said Peter Korn, accessibility architect for Sun Microsystems, which is developing open-source office software.
Microsoft, however, said it will make free downloads of its formats available to its older Office software so the transition for disabled users is more gradual.
"We expect customers to have a mixture of new prodcuts and older products in their working enviroment," said Alan Yates, general manager for Microsoft Office Information Worker Product Management Group. "Customers can upgrade at their own pace according to their own decisions."
Microsoft developed less strict formats for Office 2007, but has been criticized for choosing to not support ODF formats.
The gradual method is only a short term fix to a long term problem, Korn said, adding his company is working feverishly to make its software fully accessible.
ODF supporters say it would be better to build accessibility applications right into the software to inspire stronger competition and drive down the costs of future upgrades.
Winske says he's a fan of that strategy but thinks it will take a long time to get to that point - much longer than January. "Right now our interest lies in a Microsoft world," he said. "In the future, I don't know. ODF could create a better mousetrap.
"(But) it's a lot easier to promise and a lot harder to deliver," he added.
End of article.
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