Hidden OpenDocument agenda uncovered in Massachusetts

Summary:As more news gets out about how the Massachusetts decision to standardize on OASIS' OpenDocument Format (ODF) as the statewide standard for creating...

As more news gets out about how the Massachusetts decision to standardize on OASIS' OpenDocument Format (ODF) as the statewide standard for creating, editing, storing and retrieving public documents isn't quite over yet, word is that the focus of this Monday's hearing by a state Senate oversight committee will be the process that led up to that decision and whether it may have involved any improprieties that unfairly disadvantaged Microsoft's Office XML Reference Schema as a candidate for the state's standard.  Microsoft has alleged this to be the case (an allegation that I've debunked). 

Between the fact that Microsoft made these allegations, the fact that Microsoft publicly stated it had been in contact with the state's Senators (who do not play a role in administrative decisions such as statewide IT standard setting, but who could be powerful enough to scuttle the decision), and the fact that there is now a hearing to investigate the process that's being led by a state Senator (Sen. Marc Pacheco) who has already voiced his opposition to ODF makes it pretty clear that Microsoft has had some role in the drama's latest developments.  

Many IT managers may recognize this behavior as being typical of what solution providers do.  As an IT manager in the 80s when I was responsible for setting PC and networking standards for my employer, vendors would routinely make contact with everybody they could -- people who often had no purchasing authority whatsoever -- in hopes of doing an end run around corporate IT standards.  So tenacious were they in getting purchase orders changed,  the IT Department and the Purchasing Department had to come up with a new process whereby any PO for systems or networks over a certain amount required my signature.  Then, when the Purchasing Department starting getting piles of POs for just under that amount, we adapted again.  Darwinism shows up in the strangest places.

Pacheco's original challenge to ODF was based on the costs the state would have to bear to switch to ODF; monies that include the cost to convert the state's many public documents from their current Microsoft-based format to ODF.  As a side note, conversion -- maybe not as much (eg: Excel macros wouldn't have to be translated) -- would still be required to move to Microsoft's new Office XML Reference Schema.  It reminds me of how the corporate standards I set were often challenged by non-IT people on the basis of cost as if one of the biggest parts of my job as an IT professional didn't include doing a thorough cost-benefit analysis for every major IT decision.  To the untrained eye, every major IT initiative looks too expensive.  It's not until some of the longer term benefits -- the very reasons for those IT undertakings -- are realized, that those investments start to pay off.  Taking those cost-benefits into account is the very essence of what IT professionals do and it's clear from how transparent the process has been in Massachusetts that the state's IT pros did their job.

But, if at first you don't succeed, do whatever it takes.  For example, even if the cost-benefit analysis is bullet-proof (particularly after heavy public scrutiny), then the next step for a vendor is to discredit the people who make their careers out of doing such work.  This is the hand that Microsoft played with me, and the hand that's currently being played in Massachusetts.  And for what?  This isn't just some throw away question.  The answer speaks to the very essence of the controversy that Massachusetts now faces.  What else besides the right to sell its products to Massachusetts should Microsoft or any other company for that matter be concerning themselves with?

Looking back on everything those vendors did to circumvent the standards I set, I can almost respect the the tenacity with which they operated.  Lucrative sales hung in the balance and it's a vendor's duty to leave no stone unturned in an effort to get every sale possible.  Microsoft wants the world to believe that by standardizing on ODF,  Massachusetts' IT professionals are denying Microsoft the right to sell Microsoft Office to the state's 173 agencies (a very lucrative opportunity).  By alleging certain improprieties in the ODF decision making process, Microsoft is also suggesting that some secret anti-Microsoft agenda must have been afoot in Massachusetts. If that is indeed the case, and the answer to the for what? question above is that Microsoft is simply seeking to restore the right it has to potentially lucrative deals -- a right the company should absolutely have -- then I agree that the company should pursue whatever means possible (hearings included) to have that right restored. But if restoring the right to which it's entitled is the answer to the for what? question, then Microsoft must establish that that right has not only been taken away, but surreptitiously so. 

Back in the mid to late 80s, by virtue of the standards setting I did, I took that right -- as it pertained to my employer -- away from certain vendors.  Like many of my peers were doing at the time, I standardized on certain products.  For example, by standardizing on SSI's Wordperfect, I was essentially denying Wordstar my company's business.  By standardizing on Lotus 1-2-3, Borland's Quattro was off the list.  When I picked Novell's NetWare network operating system,  Banyan's Vines and DEC's Pathworks were eliminated from the running.  If certain Massachusetts state officials really wanted Microsoft Office off its procurement list, then standardizing on a document format instead of a competing product and then asking Microsoft to support that format  is about the dumbest way to accomplish that objective.  But that's exactly what Massachusetts did.  If Massachusetts is looking to railroad Microsoft as the Redmond, WA-based company is alleging, then the state's request for ODF support in Microsoft Office is obviously a bluff.

Microsoft -- a company with close to $5 billion of cash in the bank and over $70 billion in total assets -- has come up with all sorts of reasons that adding ODF to Microsoft Office is a bad idea.  It doesn't have the fidelity of Microsoft's formats (an issue that's really for customers to decide).  The company has limited resources and so it's a question of how best to prioritize those resources.  Supporting it would be a problem. These are reasons, by the way, that didn't get in the way of supporting Wordperfect's formats, Lotus' formats, HTML, and more recently Adobe's Portable Document Formats.   But never mind that.  All Microsoft must do to prove its point -- that Massachusetts has some anti-Microsoft agenda designed to keep the company's products off its procurement lists -- is call Massachusetts' bluff.  The company doesn't have to lift one engineering finger.  All it must do is issue a press release announcing that it will support for ODF.  

If, as Microsoft has implied, Massachusetts IT professionals  have some anti-Microsoft agenda that's causing them to forgo their training, their experience, and their ethics by stacking the deck, then the reaction of those state officials to such an announcement will be the smoking gun.  If they go into spin control and look for some other way to shut the door on Microsoft Office, then Microsoft will have indeed flushed out a rat.  But if the Massachusetts' officials embrace the announcement as they have repeatedly indicated they would, then the only thing that Microsoft should be concerning itself with -- the right to sell its products to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- will have proven to be a right that Microsoft never lost.  In that case, the only remaining concern Microsoft should have is whether or not its solutions offer the best value to Massachusetts when compared to the competing products and services that support ODF (as it should be).

If that's not enough for Microsoft, then one can only assume that some other agenda is indeed in play.  Just not the one that has so far been implicated.

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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