Three weeks after Massachusetts ratified its latest Enterprise Technical Reference Model -- a statewide standard that, starting January 1, 2007, disallows the use of Microsoft's Office file formats in favor of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) -- Microsoft is taking its case to the court of public opinion. In the process, Alan Yates, general manager in Microsoft's Information Worker Group (the group that Office is a part of) contacted me to see if I was interested in hearing Microsoft's side of the story.
Although Yates fell short of pointing the finger at any one particular individual, he claims that Microsoft's file formats -- officially called the Office XML Reference Schema -- never had a chance of being selected by Massachusetts. If you believe what Yates has to say, the order of events alone suggests that the selection process was mysteriously stacked against Microsoft in such a way that ODF was assured of selection and Microsoft was not. Yates suggests for example, that by the time Microsoft had the opportunity to officially respond to a draft of the state's standard, the decision was actually fait accompli and there was nothing that Microsoft could have said or done change the outcome.
In suggesting that there was more to the process than meets the eye -- perhaps an as of yet undisclosed agenda (for example, an anti-Microsoft one) -- Microsoft is sticking to three major points. First, contrary to the findings of state officials, Microsoft's patent license to its Office XML Reference Schema is legally open enough to support the state's main requirements of sovereignty and access to public documents in perpetuity. Microsoft continues to argue this point as though any reasonable person would see it the same way and to suggest otherwise is ludicrous. Second, in a whistle-blowing call of illegal procedure, Microsoft says its officials were not given the same opportunities to hear and address the state's concerns that supporters of ODF were. When these two points are taken together, Microsoft claims that its difficult to reach any conclusion but the one that suggests other forces were at work: forces that guaranteed the defeat of Microsoft.
The third point is that it doesn't need to support ODF in Microsoft Office. Although Yates and I didn't discuss this issue, Massachusetts officials say they asked Microsoft to add support for ODF to Office. But so far, the only response from Microsoft has been to discredit ODF on the basis of technical inferiority.
After hearing Yates out, I decided to go deep to get to the truth (perhaps you've noticed that my blogging volume has been off this week). In my investigative report, I prove that Yates is correct when it comes to the order of events and even concur that I might have reached the same conclusion that he did: that something was fishy. But the deeper I probed, the more I found that when it comes to Massachusetts' final decision, the only organization that Yates should be pointing the finger at is his own.
Not only has the Commonwealth of Massachusetts catapulted itself to a leadership position when it comes to the mixture of technology and democratic government, the ball is actually still in Microsoft's court. In fact, Microsoft has not one, but two options to assure itself that Microsoft Office will still be an option for the state's 173 agencies. However, in the bigger picture, what most people may not realize is that Massachusetts is the new ground zero for the biggest battle this industry has seen in years. In what I can only describe as one of the most masterful games of industry chess I've seen in years, some of Microsoft's biggest competitors including IBM, Sun, and Adobe took advantage of a tool that until now, may not have been available in their arsenals: Democracy. With dozens, perhaps hundreds of other governments and organizations monitoring the Massachusetts situation -- a situation that's easy to emulate -- the Microsoft franchise now faces a new and very real threat.