Did Microsoft send the wrong guy to Massachusetts' ODF hearing?

Summary:Microsoft called Massachusetts' bluff and lost.  One of Microsoft's biggest mistakes in what will prove to be a critical turning point for the Redmond-based company is that it sent the wrong men to Massachusetts' last hearing before that state set a new IT policy into stone: one that essentially bumps MS-Office from its approved software list.

Microsoft called Massachusetts' bluff and lost.  One of Microsoft's biggest mistakes in what will prove to be a critical turning point for the Redmond-based company is that it sent the wrong men to Massachusetts' last hearing before that state set a new IT policy into stone: one that essentially bumps MS-Office from its approved software list.  

In case you haven't been following the saga of Microsoft vs. Massachusetts [sic], the Commonwealth of Massachusetts last week officially ratified what it calls its Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM).  Amongst other things, ETRM requires that all of the Commonwealth's agencies as well as outside entities that do business with it move to the OASIS-ratified Open Document Format (ODF) as the state-wide standard for storing and exchanging documents that are produced by productivity applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.  Based on the Commonwealth's system for rating the openness of file formats, Adobe's popular Portable Document  file format (PDF) was approved as well.

The reason I used the highly charged phrase "Microsoft vs. Massachusetts" is that the state's decision to move forward with ODF and PDF basically means that, unless Microsoft decides to support ODF in MS-Office (which it hasn't so far), the state will begin its transition to the new IT order without Microsoft Office on the list of approved software that its 80,000 employees can use.  Heading into the final decision, the deliberations by the Commonwealth have, as far as can be told from the public proceedings, pitted state officials against those from Microsoft in a battle of the wits over the state's rationale and logic. 

Thanks to the public nature of the Commonwealth's everyday business, the proceedings and documentation have provided a rare glimpse into more than just the due diligence process that went into one organization's sweeping IT related initiative, but also into the way that Microsoft responds when a public entity such as a U.S. state government is contemplating a policy that could ultimately mean the ejection of MS-Office -- one of the Redmond-based company's primary sources of revenue.

In changing the licensing terms on its file formats to terms that guaranteed a perpetual royalty-free license -- not just to the Commonwealth but to all licensees -- Microsoft moved a mountain in hopes of meeting the state's needs.  But in the end, it wasn't enough because the terms and stewardship of Microsoft Office's file formats still did not meet the Commonwealth's definition of open.  By Sept. 1, 2005, with the issue still open for public comment and with one public "hearing" remaining, it became quite clear to all parties involved  as well as to outside observers that, unless Microsoft did more to unencumber its file formats from its still-restrictive (according to the state) intellectual property rights, the Commonwealth would move forward on its ETRM initiative without Microsoft.  

Either Microsoft thought the state was bluffing, or it gravely miscalculated when it didn't send one of its top executives -- either Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates (someone who could make a decision on the spot) -- to that last hearing on Sept. 16, 2005.  The reason I say "gravely" is that there is much more at stake for Microsoft than it may realize.  Not only does the ODF decision extend to any of the state's 80,000 employees who may need access to an Office-like productivity solution, but also to nearly everyone whose business with the state may involve the exchange of electronic documents.  

Microsoft may see Massachusetts as just one state with 80,000 employees across 173 separate agencies along with a handful of contractors that it can let go.  But, if you take a step back to look at the volume of diligence that the Commonwealth undertook before it made its decision final -- most all of which is public, you can't help but wonder whether Massachusetts just created an online wizard that will make it easier and less expensive for other governments to embark on similar projects.  Lest Microsoft think other governments aren't paying attention, it may want to consider who launched the Government Open Code Collaborative (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Utah, Kansas, Missouri, West Virginia, and the cities of Gloucester [MA], Worcester [MA], and Newport News [VA]) in June of 2004 and how the current list of GOCC members and observers has blossomed well beyond the founding group. 

Not only is the GOCC clearly keeping an eye on things in Massachusetts (see this call for participation from the GOCC), judging by a presentation given by Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) policy and architecture director Claudia Boldman, the Commonwealth considers its involvement in the GOCC an integral part of its overall open standards initiative (not to mention that the presentation was given at the Conférence surles Logiciels Libreset les Administrations Publiques in Quebec, Canada and one can only imagine who else was paying attention!).

Take the digital ecosystem that lives around Massachusetts' 173 agencies and multiply that times some number of other states.  Throw in some cities and counties and then a dash or two of corporations that see a reflection of themselves in what those governments are doing, and suddenly, instead of a defector, Microsoft has an exodus on its hands. 

This is why it came to me as a surprise that someone from the very top didn't show up on Sept. 16.  I think Microsoft miscalculated.  Even more surprising was the dialog that bounced back and forth between Microsoft National Technology Officer Stuart McKee, Microsoft's Bryan Berg, and various Massachusetts state officials.  McKee for example openly asked how it was that Microsoft was now "off the list"  -- as if he, the rest of the people, and all of us external observers didn't already know.  Or his question about whether it was Massachusetts' intention to extinguish intellectual property rights.   Like (a) Massachusetts has that sort jurisdiction (that's a Federal thing), or (b) it wasn't clear to the world that Massachusetts just wanted the document formats opened up.  

In fact, regardless of what your role is in the IT ecosystem, you should give the audio a listen and sort through the voluminous amounts of textual material that the state produced in reaching this decision. I know, I know.  Governments are known more for bureaucracy than they are for efficiency and actually getting things done.  But, the clarity, the mission, the thoroughness and the goals under which the Massachusetts officials were operating were the stuff that IT case studies should be made of.  This is a group of people that in no uncertain terms (1) understood exactly what their employer's needs were (for example, preserving the state's sovereignty), (2) figured out how best to meet those needs from a strategic IT perspective, (3) anticipated the pain points and costs and (4) very clearly articulated and communicated the plan and the progress, soliciting feedback from all interested parties along the way. 

Somehow though, Microsoft came to the Sept 16 meeting as though it was just another opportunity to do what it was establishing a track record of doing: publicly questioning the wisdom of Massachusetts' public officials.  In a recent blog entry, Microsoft Office program manager Brian Jones wrote:

I question why the proposal has this exclusivity given the fact that there has been no thorough research into the open XML formats for Office 12. The reason I say that there hasn't been thorough research is that we won't have our first Beta for another couple months, so I doubt they could have looked into it much. If they had, I can't imagine that they would have made this decision as it actually provides the easiest path of moving from proprietary binary formats into open XML formats.

One need not imagine it. In reaching the decision it did, Massachusetts set the benchmark for "looking into it that much."  And it did so publicly so people like Jones could follow along instead of taking such uninformed leaps of faith.  The truth is that the Commonwealth left very few if any stones unturned.  And now, other governments and organizations will follow.  Sure, Sept 16 was a final hearing: a last chance for everyone to get their say in before the decision was fait accompli. 

But the truth is that it was fait accompli.  Had Microsoft come to play ball instead of digging its heals in as it did, the outcome might have been very different.  Had I been a member of Gates and Ballmer's executive team, I would have advised them to be at this meeting.  I would have said "Be prepared to listen and gauge the state's resolve.  If you're alone in this fight -- and you probably will be -- you don't want to come across as the arrogant agitator.  That's not going to look good to the people in attendance.  It's not going to look good to the public.  It's not going to look good to the industry.   And it's certainly not going to look good to other governments and organizations that are watching with a keen interest in the outcome.  Instead, be prepared to be the cooperative facilitator. They're looking for partners.  If being a partner means opening our formats as much as Adobe has opened PDF, or if it means supporting ODF, then now is the time to do so.  This is the opportunity to show the world that we're so confident in our implementation of Office that we can comply with such standards and still win. After all, Adobe did it with PDF and they're way smaller than us.  Not to mention, if Bill or Steve are there with that sort of message, it really looks like you're personally interested in the needs of a very important customer and that's always a good thing."

But that's not the message that Microsoft sent to the world on Sept. 16.  And seven days later, on Sept. 23, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Enterprise Technical Reference Model 3.5 was final and Microsoft was officially "out."  Whereas Microsoft's proprietary formats had a shot at becoming the open standard (perhaps giving Office 12 a head start over competitors), that honor is now ODF's and ODF's alone.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but this may be the first time that Microsoft so publicly got sent home with its tail between its legs.  If Microsoft keeps this "we know better than you" behavior up, it probably won't be the last.

Topics: Microsoft

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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