A story in InformationWeek is the first official news report offering some of the details behind a hearing that has been rushed onto Massachusetts' state Senate's docket regarding a recent decision by the Commonwealth's Information Technology Department (ITD) to standardize on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for the creation, storage, editing, and retrieval of public documents. The state Senate is only in session for another two weeks which is why the hearing, currently scheduled for Oct 31, was rushed onto the docket so suddenly.
The InformationWeek story documents the political context to the current events, characterizing the ODF decision as a battleground between the state's Republican administration and two key Democrats: Senator Marc Pacheco and Secretary of State William Galvin. Pacheco chairs the state's Post Audit and Oversight Committee -- the committee that's holding this coming Monday's hearing. Six of the committee's seven members are Democrats and the seventh, Senator Robert Hedlund, is a Republican.
Although the ITD is an administrative department whose decisions are typically not subject to legislator input, the state's lawmakers obviously have the authority to investigate potential ethical violations that could impact the Commonwealth's procurement processes. Microsoft has alleged that the process that led to the ODF decision involved irregularities that gave ODF an unfair advantage over the Redmond-based company's competing file formats (see Microsoft: We were railroaded in Massachusetts on ODF).
In describing how both men oppose the ODF decision, the InformationWeek story says, "Generally, the two Democrats argue that the OpenDocument approach will unfairly block Microsoft from much of the state’s electronic documents business..." The story however does not consider how Microsoft would not be blocked if the company decided to support ODF much the same way it has historically supported other non-Microsoft file formats including those of Corel's (eg: the Wordperfect word processor), Lotus (eg: the 1-2-3 spreadsheet program), HTML (the World Wide Web Consortium's standard markup language for Web pages), and more recently, Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). Yesterday, in responding to an inquiry by my colleague Dan Farber, Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie cited support issues rather than a matter of principle as the reason that Microsoft has so far decided not to support ODF.
Should the Commonwealth's legislators overturn the ODF decision, it's still unclear what the ramifications might be on the global stage where dozens if not hundreds of governments, organizations, and companies have been keeping close watch on the course of events in Massachusetts. Microsoft, by its own admission during a semi-public meeting in September, was in contact with the state's Senators prior to the file format policy's final ratification. To what extent that or any subsequent contact had anything to do with this coming Monday's hearings is not known.
However, whereas such political avenues with US-based governments are routinely available to influential companies with domestic interests, the same cannot be said for American companies looking to influence decisions beyond US borders. According to a recent report by IDG's News Service, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) recently urged African Nations to embrace open source. NEPAD is backed by multiple African nations and is responsible for coming up with an economic framework that, amongst other goals, is designed to "halt the marginalization of Africa in the globalization process." Should the African countries that embrace NEPAD's vision heed the organization's advice, the result could be far more devastating to Microsoft than the outcome of any single state's decision in the US.