Monday, December 04, 2006

Massachusetts, Microsoft and ODF

Some time ago, The Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts state Information Technology office had decided to have all state offices use Open Document Format rather than Microsoft Office Link
There has been a steady stream of reports in Computerworld on the battle between the state CIO, who wanted to take this bold step to remove the state government from Microsoft's sole domain, and Microsoft lobbyists and state legislators who became Microsoft's front men.

...a controversial decision to adopt the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF, as its standard file format. Even worse, from Microsoft’s perspective, the policy stipulated that new desktop applications acquired by state agencies feature built-in support for ODF, a standard developed and promoted by some of its rivals — most prominently, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The amendment [Microsoft lobbyist Brian] Burke was promoting had the potential to stop the ODF policy dead in its tracks by giving a government task force and the secretary of state’s office approval rights on IT standards and procurement policies. (snip)

...more than 300 e-mails and attached documents obtained by Computerworld under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The e-mails provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the hardball tactics used, compromises considered and prickly negotiations that ensued as Gutierrez and Yates each tried to deal with the ramifications of the first-of-its-kind policy calling for state agencies to adopt ODF by Jan. 1, 2007.

The topic of document formats may have an arcane air to it, but it matters deeply to the world’s richest software company. Document formats have played a critical role in helping Microsoft to secure and maintain its dominance of the office-productivity applications market, with more than 400 million users of its Office software worldwide. (snip)

When Massachusetts committed to its ODF policy, migrating away from Office appeared to be the only way that executive-branch agencies could comply. Microsoft had spurned the state’s requests to engineer ODF support directly into Office, complaining in a 6,425-word document sent to the IT division in November 2005 that the open standard was “nascent and immature.”

The company argued that its new Office Open XML format also merited inclusion in Version 3.5 of the IT division’s Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM), the newly minted open standards blueprint for state agencies. (snip)

The fact that the ODF policy threatened Microsoft’s business interests wasn’t lost on Eric Kriss, who had paved the way for its adoption while serving as a cabinet secretary under Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In an interview, Kriss said he wasn’t surprised by “the aggressiveness” that Microsoft showed both publicly and privately in pursuing its opposition to the ODF policy.

“I think Microsoft took a good run at trying to change the world as opposed to trying to change [itself],” Kriss said. “And you expect to get the shock and awe when that happens. That’s what we got.”

Kriss, who left his post as secretary of administration and finance shortly after Version 3.5 of the ETRM was issued in September 2005, instigated the open-standards policy based on the belief that public documents shouldn’t be tied to a single vendor’s proprietary document format. (snip)

In early July, Microsoft announced that it was sponsoring an open-source project to develop an Office plug-in for translating files between Open XML and ODF. And Gutierrez formally announced on Aug. 23 that the state at least initially would adopt a plug-in strategy to fulfill the ODF policy. By then, he had no need to rely solely on the fruits of the Microsoft-backed project. Plug-ins also had been submitted to the state for testing by Sun and the OpenDocument Foundation.

The tortuous process that played out in Massachusetts is starting to have an effect well beyond the state’s borders. For example, without the plug-in approach, Belgium’s national government wouldn’t be able to meet ODF adoption deadlines that are due to begin taking effect next September, said Peter Strickx, chief technology officer at the Belgian Federal Civil Service’s Information and Communication Technology Division in Brussels.

Like Massachusetts, Belgium is taking a wait-and-see approach toward Open XML. “The objective is interoperability,” Strickx said. But he added that the government doesn’t plan to migrate its entire user base away from Office. “That’s between 60,000 and 80,000 users,” he noted. “We’re in a very tight budgetary situation, so we cannot ask the IT managers to spend even more on something that in their opinion doesn’t bring any real business value.”

Read the entire article via the link in the title, but also see the full drama by following the saga in Computerworld articles, links below. This is one of the ways that large technology companies stifle innovation that threatens their market dominance. Of course, some of the other favorite techniques are patent battles and hostile take-over of upstart challenger companies. Neither option open when battling open source adoption by a state government. None of this is stopping European governments from similar moves to vendor-neutral standards that open up the playing field of providing software for government agencies.

Opponents of ODF Strike back in Mass., but support for format rises in Europe Link, June 30, 2006

Mass Confirms it Will Stay on Office for Now, but will start using ODF plug-ins link, August 23, 2006

Microsoft Gets Help From Both Sides of the Aisle on Lobbying link, Dec. 4, 2006

State's Snub on File Format Caught Microsoft by Surprise link, Dec. 4, 2006

A sort-of related article on the Massachusetts CIO Gutierrez tendering his resignation in October over the Legislature's failure to pass a bond for information technology investment, and how it would not interfere with the state moving to Open Document Format link, October 9, 2006.

Very little of this appeared in the Globe.

Mock-ad depicting Microsoft PC threatening Mac (and by extension, all competitors) is from an entertaining site that hosts fake ad contests,

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