CIO who backed OpenDocument in Massachusetts resigns

The state government official who had been moving Massachusetts away from Microsoft Corp.’s digital document formats has resigned. Peter Quinn, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, will quit his position, effective Jan. 9, according to an internal memo obtained by the IDG News Service.

Quinn had been behind a drive to change state computers so that they would no longer store documents in proprietary formats such as those used by Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. Under a proposal drafted by Quinn’s Information Technology Division (ITD), in 2007, the state would begin a move to the OpenDocument file format, an open, XML-based format used by a variety of products including IBM Workplace and StarOffice.

By championing the move away from Microsoft, Quinn became a hero to the open-source community, but he also attracted a level of public scrutiny that disrupted his private and professional life. That attention played a role in his resignation, according to the memo.

“Over the last several months, we have been through some very difficult and tumultuous times,” he wrote in the memo, which was sent on the evening of Dec. 24 to staff within the ITD. “Many of these events have been very disruptive and harmful to my personal well being, my family and many of my closest friends. This is a burden I will no longer carry.”

According to observers, Quinn’s support of OpenDocument had put him in a difficult position, which was made more difficult earlier this year, following the departure of his powerful supporter within Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s administration, Administration and Finance Secretary Eric Criss.

The Romney administration recently launched an investigation into out-of-state trips taken by Quinn to speak at technology conferences over the past two years, following a report in the Boston Globe which questioned the appropriateness of such trips. Quinn was found to have done nothing wrong following the investigation, according to the Globe.

“I have become a lightning rod with regard to any IT initiative. Even the smallest initiatives are being mitigated or stopped by some of the most unlikely and often uninformed parties,” Quinn wrote in his memo. “The last thing I can let happen is my presence be the major contributing factor in marginalizing the good work of ITD and the entire IT community.”

Whether Quinn’s departure will help or hinder the state’s move away from Microsoft remains to be seen. Last month, Eric Criss’s replacement, Tom Trimarco, said that the state is optimistic that a newly proposed Microsoft format called Office Open XML will meet the state’s standards.

Microsoft has said that it plans to standardize Office Open XML through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). By doing this, the company would open up the formats for its Word, Excel and PowerPoint products.

One Boston attorney who has been following the matter said that it may be hard for Massachusetts to move away from the OpenDocument format (ODF) now. “One could assume that whoever stands in for [Quinn] on January 10 would first and foremost want to just keep his or her head down and out of the line of fire,” wrote Andrew Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove LLP in an e-mail interview. “But on the other hand, the [story] has been so well covered, both in the formal press as well as in IT blogs, and the issues have been so well developed, that I also don’t think that the powers that be in the Commonwealth can simply declare victory and scuttle ODF, either.”

Whatever the fallout from Quinn’s resignation, it seems clear that the next year’s developments in Massachusetts will be closely watched.

“Massachusetts is the canary in the mine on this issue,” John Palfrey, clinical professor of law and executive director of the Berkman Center on Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, said recently. “If Massachusetts gets this right, others will follow.”

China Martens in Boston contributed to this report

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