Politics and the perversion of standards

Summary:Sometimes, fact is just a better read than fiction.  I promise you, if you have any interest in technology standards ....

Sometimes, fact is just a better read than fiction.  I promise you, if you have any interest in technology standards ....any interest..-- or if you have been paying any attention to the OpenDocument Format (ODF) saga as it unfolds in Massachusetts -- that the word for word transcription I've done of certain parts of a political hearing that took place last week in that state will be well worth the read.  The practically made-for-TV story is perhaps better than any industry drama I've been exposed to before. The text I've transcribed from that hearing -- an inquisition that challenged the wisdom, viability, constitutionality, and cost of the state IT department's (officially, "ITD") decision to standardize on OASIS' ODF as the format that many of the state's public documents must be stored in starting on January 1, 2007 -- provides a rare glimpse at how goverment IT decisions can easily become entangled with politics in a way that can not only undermine a promising standard, but that may serve special interests before it ever serves those of the public.

I have a warning.  If you are a fan of open standards and understand how, when any organization sets a standard, it sets the stage for vendors to compete on a level playing field and what the benefits are, you may find yourself cheering for the state's CIO Peter Quinn and his legal sidekick ITD general counsel Linda Hamel as they attempt to distill rhetoric couched as questions into fact. You will also be horrified -- perhaps jumping out of your chair screaming the way some who were present at the hearing wanted to -- by some of the dialogue and the way it paints the decision as one that will stifle competition.  But if you're a fan of Microsoft -- and judging by the comments to my blogs so far on this issue, there are many of you -- you will revel in Massachusetts state Senator Marc R. Pacheco's (who asked all of the questions and who was clearly prepared to debate against ODF) digressions. 

So, to set the stage, there are three players; Senator Mark Pacheco, CIO Peter Quinn, and ITD general counsel Linda Hamel.  Where required, so you know who is doing the talking, I'm using the initials MP, PQ, and LH.  The transcription is not a complete transcription but rather one of just specific parts that I think are worth reading or listening to.  It will be peppered with my thoughts -- particuarly what I might have said had I been allowed to stand up during the hearing and blurt out my own feelings. For the transcription, and in the name of media transparency, and just so you don't think I'm misquoting or taking any of what was said out of context, I will include time codes so that you can listen to the hearing's audio and advance to that specific spot to hear what exactly was said, and how it was said.  The audio is downloadable, but be advised that the hearing went on for more than three hours.  The file's size is appromixately 96 MB.  Also, where you see two or more contiguous question marks (eg: ??), that means I could not make out what exactly was said.  The hearing room had a very noisy air conditioning system that made it hard to hear a few words.

I'm going to lead with the least dramatic part of the dialogue first.  There was a point in the hearing where Pacheco and Hamel seemed to be disconnecting on the scope of ITD's authority to set standards for the state's agencies.  Not being knowlegable on political structure, I had trouble following the dialogue at the time -- partly because I had trouble connecting Pacheco's follow-up questions to Hamel's answers.  But in re-listening to the audio, I think was able to make more sense of it.  The reason I'm including it here is that it clearly demonstrates how political structure (1) can put so many cooks in the kitchen that no food ever gets cooked (no decision can actually get made, or standard set), and (2) makes governmental IT a challenge like no other, and (3) shows how the political process paves the way for any decision in government to be thrown into limbo on the grounds of dualing interpretations of law, intent, and process.  All that's needed is a person with enough power to start the process.

The history here is that a piece of Massachusetts legislation that created an IT Advisory board was written into law and while the ITD wasn't obligated to take orders from it (for example, the IT Board couldn't say "set xyz as a standard"), it was essentially obligated to use it as a sounding board for its policies.  But, between the time the legislation was first written and the time it was enacted, the state's constitutional officers who were originally specified as members of the IT advisory board were written out of the board.   As such, it appears as though the ITD stuck to the letter of the law by working with the advisory board but did not include the state's constitutional officers in the "sounding board" process since the legislation didn't include them as part of the board.  At one point, Pacheco says even though they weren't on the board, the board recommended including them in the process as well. Overall, the question being raised appears to be whether or not, by not including the constitutional officers in the standards setting process, was the state's officially sanctioned  process violated in a way that should nullify the standard?   In the dialogue, you can see how Pacheco is less interested in what ITD's legal obligations are and more interested in the legislation's intent since he was one of the Senators who signed it:

[LH @ 21:14] constitutionaly speaking, the judiciary pushed very hard in that conversation to prevent the creation a central administrative  body for impformation technology based on the ruling of the court itself in the mid-70's.

Here, as best as I can tell, Hamel seems to be discussing why the constitutional officers may have been removed from the IT advisory board legislation before it was enacted.  Since the IT advistory board is actually a sounding board for all branches of the state government (not just the executive branch that the ITD serves), by not including the state's constitutional officers, the chances of ending up with too powerful of a central administrative body is avoided.  After a bit of back and forth, Pacheco responds:

[MP @ 31:30] I think it's very clear as a member of the legislature who voted on it, I think it's very clear what the legislative intent was with the advisory board.  The advistory board was put in place -- again the most recent statute on something you can go back to a couple of years ago.. the most recent statute adopted by legislature so their would be a cooperative process put in place with decision making. Especially the decision that has such dramatic and far reaching impact across the ExecutiveBranch of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The entire exchange regarding the authority and the legislation takes place from 15:45 to 34:16 and I'm not sure if I totally got it right.  But, while in the hearing, I felt myself more wishing that it was a courtroom where lawyers for both sides got to ask the questions in a way that better established the facts.

Before that exchange however, near the beginning of hearing, the Senator got things off to a start with the following speech which I thought was very important:

[MP @ 00:00] A policy should be adopted in the best interests of the taxpayers, and not in the best interests of, uh, one particular company over another. Uh, That's why we have procurement statues that, uh, try to incorprorate an open and fair and competitive process. In a 2004 report of procurement reform, the committee documented the cost savings and improved services from increased competition in government procurement processes. That's online for those that are interested. In logging on and seeing some of the work that's been submitted and done before, ensuring that we have more competition not less in the procurement of services for taxpayers here and in the operation of our government. In order to fullfill this charge and make an determination on the information technology procurement, the committee has at will,
relied on many stakeholders, including [the Information Technology Department (ITD)], the state's constitutional officers, other state agencies, industry experts, and citizen advocates. These stakeholders represent important perspectives in the policy making process and none should be excluded in the development of a standard of this magnitude.

So, Pacheco clearly cites the fair and competitive framework that must exist for the state's procurement process and how that best serves the government as well as the taxpayers from a cost perspective.  However, he also makes reference to the constitutional officers as though they are officially stakeholders whose opinion the ITD was obligated to take into consideration.  Hamel's position, based on the legislation, is that even if the advistory board (on which the constitutional officers do not sit) recommends inclusion of the constitutional officers in the process, the fact that the advisory board is only advisory in nature means that the ITD is not obligated to do so and was therefore within its rights to set the standard without treating the constitutional officers as official stakeholders that had to be involved.

Next came an interest exchange regarding how the Library of Congress was standardizing on ODF. What's interesting to me is how the line of questioning seems more geared at cornering Linda Hamel into saying that in order to have ODF as a standard, one needs to have OpenOffice.  Hamel anticipates where he's heading and takes the opportunity to make it clear that ITD is not establishing a policy that dictates selection of a specific productivity suite.  But the Senator doesn't let go.  He clearly knows that what Hamel is saying about the likelihood of competing solutions may be true by the time the standard goes into effect in January 2007.  So, he changes the scope of he questioning to what would happen if the standard went into effect tomorrow (before companies like IBM, Corel, Google, and others have had a chance to ship their solutions) even though it won't go into effect for at least another year. 

[MP@44:05] In the proposal that the Library of Congress has before them, have they opted for OpenOffice?

LH:
OpenDocument Format and PDF

MP: It's different.  You can do OpenDocument Format with out saying OpenOffice, right?  So we have a proposal that is before us with ETRM that basically requires the OpenDocument Format and anybody that's going to run that system, and I asked this recently, will realize, in the OpenOffice [DB: I think he was implying that the ODF was a system that would have to run in OpenOffice, or, in other words, that OpenOffice is required to support ODF]. So has the Library of Congress taken a position on that?

LH:
Senator, like ITD the Library of Congress is referring to a document format. Not to an office application that supports it. ITD has never come out and said that agencies have to use OpenOffice. To the contrary, there are multiple distributors,...

MP: If you could just answer my question: Has the Library of Congress taken a position saying yes, or no. Have they done this, yes or no, that OpenOffice is the product that should be implemented.

LH: Like ITD, they have not Senator. Just like ITD, they have not.  They came out in favor of OpenDocument Format as we have. And, ITD has never specified that agencies have to use OpenOffice and in fact, interestingly enough, because OpenDocument Format ..

MP: Isn't that the practical reality in terms of the implementation of the policy if it was to go into effect tomorrow..isn't that the practical reality of where things are, at least at this time?  In other words, the support systems that are out there.. listen.. As we're sitting here, I'm sure some time in the future that even some the people that may be opposing this like IBM was two years ago and now all of the sudden they're in a different situation now.. I'm sure there will be all kinds of things happening down the road, but as we are sitting here today, it is my understanding that it's OpenOffice is the product that can be used right now.

LH: Senator, that is not ITD's understanding. ITD understands that there are multiple office applications that support OpenDocument Format and we know from Microsoft's recent adoption of the PDF format that it's quite possible -- even for the vendor that owns 90 percent of the desktops that you fund -- that they too could support OpenDocument Format if they chose to do so. A gentleman whose last name is..

MP: Within the timeline that your talking about. You're talking about January 2007.  I know because I had the same feeling that you just expressed.  Why can't we do this with PDF and it's my understanding that PDF took well over a year to develop. I know we just had an annoucement but there was a lot of development going on before that announcement took place.

What's unnerving about this line of questioning is that it is so focused on what's not possible rather than what is possible and how it can best serve the state of Massachusetts.  If it was implemented tomorrow, then it's not possible to have competition because OpenOffice is the only solution.  But it's not being implemented tomorrow.   If Microsoft started working on ODF support today, based on how long it took Microsoft to add PDF support, it wouldn't be done for more than a year.  Actually, that's not bad when you consider the point of the standard.  The ITD seems focused more on what matters to the citizens and employees of Massachusetts not just a year from now, but 100 or 200 years from now.

[MP@49:07] Let's move to procurement.  Procurement policies that you're looking at.  You say now that the procurement policy.. that you're here stating to us today that you see this as a standard. You're establishing a standard.  Correct?

LH: Yes.

MP: And, under the standard, which products specifically can an implementation of this strategy support the OpenDocument Format.

PQ: There are a number of them today. StarOffice, KOffice, OpenOffice, IBM's Workplace to just name four.  And more are coming. In the paper today, Google announced support for OpenOffice.  Standards, if you follow standards not only in technology but if you follow the home building industry or anything have always always promoted competition and have always been good for the industry. What has been a definite for the industry has been proprietary standards. Now all we have said here and this is not a procurement issue whatsoever because the largest supplier of desktops in the Commonwealth could choose to support this in a heartbeat, if they wanted to. And that is entirely up to them. We are not telling people what to buy. We are saying that this is a standard much like many of the other standards that were promulgated over the first three versions of ETRM and vendors have all stepped up to hit the standard. Two years ago, there was an immense amount of criticism because we gave  open source and open standards equal footing and we backed away from that because we truly believe that after vetting that entire policy in front of the Mass. Software Council and from the comments we got from everybody that open standards was the ticket.  And this vendor that currently supplies 90-plus percent of all the desktops said "This is great. We all want to be about open standards."  The standard we have adopted here today is created by a standards body. It's called OASIS, is actually the group. They [Microsoft] are a member of the group.  They are not an active participant by their choice and the standard is actually being moved up to be ratified by the International Standards Organization.  This is not something we came at half cocked. 

So, in principal, Quinn is correct and the passage very eloquently communicates the value of an open standard, how the state could benefit from it, and why it seems absurd that Microsoft -- a company that already controls 90 percent of the desktops in the state -- can't find it in its heart to support ODF.  If I were to hit Quinn on a few technicalities, they would be (1) that IBM's Workplace Managed Client is not really shipping yet and so, even though IBM has pledged ODF support, it doesn't count and (2) that OASIS officially isn't  a standards organization like the American National Standards Institute or the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) are.   That said, it is in a position to publish open multiparty-stewarded specifications of which ODF is one.  ODF is an open specification.  A very open one at that.   When and if the ISO ratifies it as a standard, I think that then, we can officially call it a standard.  Even if the ISO doesn't ratify it soon, if all the companies that are promising support for it actually get that support shipped, you could say that it's also on it's way to being a de facto standard. 

When it comes to the ISO however, there is one other bit of history that's very relevant.  Should the ISO ratify ODF has an international standard, Microsoft would end up looking very hypocritical if it ended up not supporting it.  That's because Microsoft did precisely the same thing with the C# programming language and its Common Lanaguage Infrastructure  (the heart of .NET) so that executives right up to the top of the company including Bill Gates could hail the two as official standards.  Back in 2002, the company selected ECMA as the OASIS-like organization through which to publish the specifications.  ECMA as it turns out has a special status with the ISO to get any specifications it publishes onto ISO's fast track which is exactly what happened to the CLI and C#.   

Leading into this next bit of dialog, Linda Hamel had earlier said "open source" when she meant to say "open standards."  She corrected herself immediately, but, Pacheco came back to it.  What happens next  is a real indicator that Pacheco -- who the week before this was worrying about how a dam in Taunton, MA might give way and flood the whole town -- has the wires of ODF, OpenOffice, and the GPL completely crossed in a way that Microsoft supporters probably like to see, but was a real perversion of the relationship between the three.

[MP@59:30] Why, just as an aside, why was it that you were concerned about you said open standards, and in your statement, you said open source and you wanted to correct yourself so quickly. What was the problem there.

LH: Because senator, when you adopt a standard like OpenDocument format, both proprietary and open source distributors can meet those standards. For example, recently Microsoft announced that the next version of Office will support PDF and one of their representatives said we're happy to support this open standard. When you talk about open source, you're talking about something different than open standards.

MP: OK. Well, I'm glad you,.. that's interesting because that's not the way I understand, at least how this standard that you're proposing works.  Let me try to follow this a little bit. You referenced earlier that OpenOffice would, could be used because it's one of the platforms that would work and meet the OpenDocument Format. Correct? Under OpenOffice, there is what is called a GPL is one of the elements, right? 

LH: Ah, not necessarily Senator.  OpenOffice is distributed  by various vendors under different licenses. Some GPL licenses. Some vendors choose what's called a dual licensing mode under which they may license both under the GPL and some of their products which are somewhat enhanced under a non-GPL license. Open source license, but not a GPL license. And again, even in the Open Source community, there are questions about whether all those second licenses are necessarily open enough.

There were a lot of groans and shaking heads in the gallery during this exchange, not surprisingly from those who support the ODF decision.  At this point in the hearing, I was thinking about how the nuanced relationship between standards, software, and licenses is usually so tightly bound that it's difficult if not impossible for someone like Pacheco who's not intimately familiar with technology to unbundle them in a way that easily exposes the lines of distinction. 

If Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee was called to testify, he probaby would have found a whiteboard, and showed Pacheco another example.  It would have been the one where the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP, the protocol of the Web) is the open standard that's supported by both Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) and the Apache Software Foundation's Apache Web Server.  One -- Apache -- is available under an open source license, the other -- Microsoft's IIS -- is not.  Where Massachusetts needs Web servers, the state is free to pick either (or from a bunch of others) and know that, because of how both support the same open Web standard (HTTP) --  either can be used to publish a Web site that anyone in the world can access. 

That's exactly how the ODF ecosystem can work to the benefit of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. ODF is like HTTP. Since it's open -- the state would be free to pick from solutions that support it and those solutions can come from Microsoft (just like IIS supports HTTP) or from open source providers like OpenOffice.org (just like the Apache supports HTTP).  Much the same way the licenses to Apache and IIS are irrelevant to their support of HTTP, the licenses to OpenOffice.org and the licenses to the solutions that can come from Microsoft, Corel, or whoever else decides to support ODF in their products are irrelevant as well. 

But in this hearing, Pacheco would not get such frank talk about the relationship between standards, software, and licenses which is unfortuante because one has to assume that the nuanced boundaries between three are exactly the sort of thing that a politician in Pacheco's position needs to have flushed out in a hearing of this nature.  For those willing to give Pacheco the benefit of the doubt -- that he as a politician who doesn't spend much time with technology just didn't have a grasp of the relationship of the three -- Pacheco may have squandered that benefit when what he said next made it clear that someone else had not only explained it in detail to him, but, in what can only be described as an exploitation of his naivete on the subject matter, also programmed him to leap into the abyss with an egregiously unfounded "concern."

[MP@1:01:13] Well, it's my understanding, we won't get into the technology piece it's not why we want to have this hearing.  But I certainly want to make sure that what I'm hearing is correct. And that's why the IT division.. that's why I was hoping, when I sent my letter very early on during the comment phase .. I said we wanted to have an objective third party like the IT division of the state auditors office go over the cost issues, go over the IT issues..we were hoping that ITD having nothing to fear of having a review by IT experts would be able to just wait a little bit to see whether or not that is, uh, whether or not some of the assumptions that have been made were at least in the opinion of the state auditors correct.  I am concerned that when I look at proprietary software companies bidding on work under the OpenDocument Standard ... if you do have an OpenOffice format, if you have an OpenOffice product and its an OpenOffice product which has GPL as one of the elements, then obviously the uh, in order to meet the standard then, that would mean that a proprietay company would have to release their code.

When the developers of proprietary software decide to attach an open source license to the source code behind their software (as IBM did with its IDE when it created the Eclipse Foundation, or as Sun has done with the source code to Solaris), that code does indeed get "released" to the open source community.  For Pacheco to have made the first connection between the GPL (an open source license) and "releasing code," it's very clear that he knew more than he was letting on.  But the leap he took next while mentioning a specific open source license (GPL) raised immediate suspicion that the influence of others was at work.

To imply that ODF, by virtue of the fact that it's supported by open source software like OpenOffice.org, somehow not only inherits an open source license, but then also infects any proprietary software that also supports ODF with that open source license in such a way that forces the developer of that software to release the source code behind their software is such an absurd preversion of the difference between open source and open standards that it's impossible for anybody -- newbies included -- to make it up. 

ODF is a specification.  It is not software like OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Office are.  Like with other specifications that are open standards (ie: HTTP, TCP/IP, HTML, XML, etc.), there is no source code to license and therefore, open source (which applies to source code only, thus open "source") simply doesn't apply.  Much the same way Microsoft's support of the open standard HTTP in IIS and its support of TCP/IP in Windows never forced that company to reveal the source code behind those products, support of ODF would never force Microsoft to reveal the source code behind Microsoft Office.  Hamel and Quinn immediately try to clear up Pacheco's understanding, but at this point, it is clear that the well has been poisoned and now, it's all about damage control:

LH: Senator. It would not be necessary for a proprietary company to release all of the code for its office application in order to support OpenDocument Format. Just as Microsoft will not be releasing all of the code for Office 12 in order to support PDF version 1.4.  That is not, as I understand it, a true factual statement.

PQ: We really don't care whose technology, what you do with it, what transpires in the that technology.  But we do care at the end when you finally put out that document and you save it in a format, for long term preservation that's in a format.. how and what you do aside from that? You know, good. Compete on your technological prowess [or] give it away because that's what you think is a good thing to do. It's not what's at issue here and we're not setting procurement at all. We're just setting a standard that at the end of the day.. what it is you create..is the part that we care about. And that makes it a very very open playing field for everybody.

And, as you can see from the question at the end of Pacheco's next digression, it appeared as though Hamel and Quinn may have gotten him back on the right track, thinking in terms of what's most important for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  He talks about fostering competition and using the state auditors to validate the decision (and it's hard to imagine the state auditors arriving at any conclusion other than that ODF can foster competition in the same way that other standards foster competition for the state's tech and non-tech business):

[MP@1:04:07] And, At the end of the day, if that's what we're really talking about, then I think you're going to find that as I said in December of 2003, you know, I could really care what what you know what company is doing what as long as we can have the competition and everybody is able to participate.  There's a large section of the existing IT community here in our state that is being excluded from participation as a consequence of at least the way I understand the policy is written right now.  And that is something that needs to be clarified as to whether or not that's real or fictitious or what the story is on it.  But the bottom line is that is what uh, and that's why I think the IT division of the auditors can help us with that. Quite frankly, I'm.. in my opinion, more important, I know this... more important than the technology piece is that when you look at the governmental responsibility, procurement fulfillment services, the cost associated with all of this, or the savings associated with this, and the statutory part of it, that either you do or do not have, it is our responsibility to make sure that those issues are addressed properly. That's why we're having this hearing.  That's why we've been having meetings. That why we're going to have as much information coming back to us on this. Uh, A&F procurement policies which state that purchases will require quote stimulation of competition [unquote].  And you're saying that this will stimulate more competition?

LH: Senator, in order to think about stimulating competition, we have to take a look at where we are today. And where we are today is such a high proportion of our office applications are sold by one company. It would be hard for anybody to say that there's competition for the desktops that we pay so much for in the Commonwealth.  We see adoption of the OpenDocument Format as flinging the doors open to competition by a wide variety of vendors selling either proprietary or open source products.

However, if the ODF-supporters in the room had any hope that things might've been back on track, the senator's next package of digressions and questions pretty much dashed it.

[MP@1:07:11] During the meetings that I have had with industries and that I've had with numerous [vendors and individuals??], I have asked what under the existing policies or existing scenario prevents people from bidding under the existing scenario...and you know, we've all... at least the last few vendors have said that they can participate and that they do bid and do win some bids and they are able to participate in the system as of this day.  So my question is, what it seems like is that there is one entity, that under the way the structure is set up ...unless they change, unless we're in the business of saying what business models were going let people to use, alright, which is never been typically what we've done as a state, I'm curious to see whether or not what message that sends actually to other people in the intellectual property business areas that do business here in Massachusetts. We don't usually actually tell folks what business model they have to use. Why is that if this is stimulating competition that help in terms of creating a better standard, why is it that people like uh, groups like uh, Citizens Against Government Waste which have taken a position that they say quote limits competition and establishes arbitrary rules [unquote].  And then groups like uh The Americans for Tax Reform have also come out [under this policy heading??] with some strong concerns about this.  Have you reached out to these groups at all that have expressed these types of concerns and tried to understand where they are coming from or explain to them what you're trying to do?

Hamel deals with the special interest group part of the question in a second.  But the part about business models is more evidence that other influential forces are at work in this dialog.  That's because this is the first time any mention of business models came up in the hearing and Pacheco didn't connect it to anything that was said up until that point that afternoon. 

So, where in left field could that comment have come from? If there was something to connect it to, then perhaps it was the earlier ill-contrived bit about how Microsoft's support of ODF would force it to release its source code under an open source license. Just supposing that were true for a second, then connecting that to a discussion of business models and intellectual property (IP) actually demonstrates an uncanny command of the subject matter on Pacheco's behalf. But for someone to have that sort of command while also crossing the wires of open source and open standards the way he did doesn't add up.  So, where or who was this  coming from?  

One source of rhetoric that echoed similar sentiments came from Microsoft.  I instantly recognized the IP issue as a question that was asked by Microsoft national technology officer Stuart McKee during an open formats meeting that was hosted on Sept 16 by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. In the audio recording (available for download here) of that meeting, at 1:12:32, McKee asks:

As it relates to patent issues and intellectual property issues, we feel there is a very crisp line for us and we feel very strongly about part of what we do as related to developing new ideas and being able to develop those new ideas.  You know, there's a $140 billion commercial software industry in the US that generates a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue and we feel very strongly about that because that's what we do.  It's at the core of what we do.  So I'm trying to understand... are you actually talking about extinguishing intellectual property rights?

Sound familiar? It did to me.

In her response to Pacheco's question, Hamel deals with the special interest group part of the question:

LH: Senator I think if you take a look at every advocacy group except for the community of persons with disabilities who has come out against adopting OpenDocument Format -- entities like the Citizens Against Public Waste, um, Americans for Fair Tax Policy -- that in most cases you will find Microsoft funding behind the group. And I think that that's an important factor to take account of when you think about competition, when you think about where the comments are coming from.  You have some questions today and I understand them about why the standard they issued wasn't subject to the 30A?? notice and comment process and I think one of the interesting things about that question is taking a look at whether or not any citizens came
forward to and said that their due process rights were violated in anyway by the adoption of this standard, setting aside again the community of persons with disabilities (whose issues we'll address later).

MP: They are citizens of the commonwealth?

LH: They are as much citizens as anyone else in this room Senator. But my point is, the playbook of issues about process came out of a Microsoft outline -- every single process question that's been raised by those groups that you mentioned. And in fact, some of their [Microsoft's] language is quoted verbatim in the comments from those groups. So we did, when we saw comments, try to find out a little bit about the groups presenting that information and I think it's fair to say Senator that some of the groups that would appear to be grass roots entities are, actually have corporate sponsors.

MP: So, you're saying that Citizens Against Government Waste or Americans for Tax Reform are wholly owned subsidaries of Microsoft? Is that what you're saying?

LH: Senator, those are your words, not mine.

MP: Well, it's the question you just left me with with the comments you just made. I mean, if we don't mean to be uh, if you don't mean some comments than I suggest that you might not want to say them.  The bottom line here is that you just inferred that they were bought by Microsoft.

LH: Senator. I never stated that. Those were your words.

PQ: Senator if I could... You are referencing the industries here in Massachusetts and we have since 2003 taken the opportunity to use what was the Massachusetts Software Council .. what is now the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council ...to actually vet our policy in front of us... because these are the enterpreneurs that represent something around 5% of the jobs which was in the Globe this morning just so you've got a reference point.  We sat before them on September 16, with the exception of the Microsoft folks and one individual who just didn't know what he was talking about..and fortunately everybody came absolutely on the side of open standards and open formats and I thought that was a very very healthy thing because it allowed everybody to compete and it wasn't directed against anybody.

Pacheco was probably right, for the public record's sake, to use his pulpit to make Hamel clarify the nature of Microsoft's relationship (subsidiary vs. backer) to the special interest groups (SIGs) he mentioned.  Hamel's inference was indeed that the SIGs in question where "bought" by Microsoft.  But for the senator -- clearly no stranger to SIGs or lobbying organizations -- to act as though such opinion purchasing wasn't a possibility was clearly unconvincing to some in the gallery who were shaking their heads in disbelief. 

Pacheco's comment about Quinn's point is worth some follow up as well.  The Sept 16 meeting was attended by state's key players, most of the key vendors that have an interest in the outcome (including Microsoft), and members of the council including electronic spreadsheet inventors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.  It was one the last public opportunities for Microsoft to change its position -- either by announcing support for ODF or by announcing that it would open its Office XML Reference Schema even further -- prior to ITD making it's decision to standardize on ODF final on Sept 23.  Pacheco is justified in making sure that the opinions of those who oppose ITD's ODF plan are fully vetted by a third party to make sure the plan and its timing for implementation can hold up to the utmost scrutiny. 

But it was clear from the tenor of the afternoon and the tone of Pacheco's voice that the hearing was less about what could be done to assuage those were opposed to ODF and more about finding the reasons the plan should be killed.  For example, when several people tesitified on behalf of those with disabilities, they were never asked what they thought the potential benefits of such a standard could be and whether they saw those as being worthwhile.  As it turns out, most of the people from the disability community that I spoke with -- all of which were experts in computer accessibility for the disabled -- didn't really have a specific problem with ODF. 

Their primary beef was that as long as Microsoft wasn't going to support ODF in its Office productivity suite, that the January 1, 2007 implementation date was too soon for ODF-compliant products to be as accessible to those with disabilities as were solutions based on Microsoft's Office and Windows.  One question that was never asked of the people who represented the disability community was, "If, by January 1, 2007, one or more vendors are able to show solutions that equal the accessibility prowess of Office and Windows-based solutions, would their concerns be addressed?  Or, if the state was willing to delay the deployment date until which time ODF-compliant solutions equaled or exceeded that prowess (which the state has said it would do), would that also address their concerns?"   But instead of asking those questions, Pacheco focused on what would happen if the plan went into effect tomorrow -- a question which clearly set ODF up for failure.

So, what does the bias of Pacheco's line of questioning have to do with Quinn's response? For starters, some of the state's key technology employers are pro-ODF.  IBM's Lotus division for example -- the one that develops the IBM product (Lotus Workplace Managed Client) that the company says will be ODF-compliant by the end of the year -- is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Novell is headquartered here as well.  Sun has a huge campus in Burlington, MA, just north of Boston.  OASIS -- the multi-vendor consortium that stewards and publishes ODF -- is based in Billerica, MA.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that government technology decisions should be made on the basis of who is local and who is not.  They should be made on the basis of what will strategically best serve the government.  What makes the bias of Pacheco's questions so unsual is how strongly they favored a single company (Microsoft) that has almost no presence in Massachusetts and how badly they disadvantaged the pro-ODF companies and organizations that collectively make a significant contribution to the local economy. If, for the pro-ODF crowd, the nails weren't in the coffin yet, Pacheco pretty much drove them in when he mixed his metaphors in response to what Quinn said:

[MP@1:12:43] Alright. Let me just follow up on that because as you know from my December meeting I said basically the same thing and still say it today. I don't care if you're driving a BMW or a Mercedes or a Ford. You know.  As long as you can get into the same parking space. So, uh, that's where I'm coming from. It just seems to me that the policy that's put on here is basically telling me the type of tires you can put on the car... that I have to put on the car in order to drive into that parking space. And, if that's not the case, it's not the case.  That's why I asked, in my letter, to you, during the comment period from this committee that we at least postpone only until the auditor's office had a chance to take a look and review, and that the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office had a chance to review and comment before there was an implementatoin of the policy . Why then couldn't you wait until those two offices had an opportunity to review before implemmentation. 

And why why when you knew two years ago and more recently and obviously now, they're here, they'll testify, that there were concerns from the disability community would you move forward with implementation if you were trying to work in a truly collaborative way with all of these entities. There are concerns that are out there from public records, there are concerns that are out there from the disability community, and quite frankly .. and I checked to see if I could release some redacted copies today, but I'm not going to do that because I'm not going to put the individuals who have written in a position where they .. I'm not saying you'd do it, but ..where they get accosted?? by it down the road .. but I've got people in high ranking slots all across this government calling down about this, sending letters, with  very very strong concerns about the way in which the policy.. all of which by the way are very supportive of open standards.. of standards that everybody can bid on.. you know.. why are there all these concerns if everybody has reached out and taken concerns as they've gone along. They're still there. You know. We talked about these in December of 2003. Here we are in October of 2005 and there are still these concerns out there and still misunderstandings about what it is you're doing. And I go back to that OpenOffice piece again. You reference different other products that can work that the GPL piece that uh you talked about not accurate so on and so forth so. OK, if all of that's factual and I'm not the IT expert, God knows anybody only has to listen to be for about 10 minutes to know that, but quite frankly that's not what this is about.  But that's what those officers who are there to check on the check and balance of government is all about. 

As a reminder, although this is the last quote I'm examining in this blog, the meeting hearing went on for at least another two hours.  As it turns out, the car analogy is actually quite appropriate for a discussion regarding open standards.  When an organization implements something open like ODF, it's doing the opposite of telling people in the company what tires they have to buy.  ODF is like a standard wheel.   By having a standard wheel on the Ford Explorers that are used by state officials and state police -- a wheel that any tire manufacturer in the world is free to make tires for without answering to Ford -- the state has created situation where those tire manufacturers compete against each other for the state's business with tires that conform to the state's standard wheel.  Whereas one agency with Explorers is free to buy tires from Bridgestone, another can get them from Good Year.  If at some point, one manufacturer's tire -- for example Firestone's -- proves to be too faulty in terms of performance or stability to the point that it's a threat to the safety of the state's employees, it's the state's standard for wheels that makes it possible to easily switch to safer tires. 

In addition to putting the state in control of the safety of it's employees, the standard also puts the state in control of its budget for tires since multiple manufacturers can freely compete to offer the state the best value.  ODF is like the standard wheel.   The tires are the ODF-compliant solutions like OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, IBM's Workplace Managed Client, whatever Google has in the works, etc.  In fact, whereas StarOffice is a thick client solution, it's conceivable that Google will come up with something browser based thereby giving end-users a choice of using the appropriate tool at the appropriate time to work with the same documents (StarOffice at their desktops, GoogleOffice from a Web terminal).  In the car analogy, this is akin to being able to use regular tires in the spring, fall, and summer, and snow tires in the winter.

In contrast, with Microsoft's Office XML Reference Schema, it is true that third parties can build compliant software.  But, as I wrote in another blog (see MS-Office schema not as open source friendly as Microsoft says it is),  those third parties are not free to assign whatever license they want to to their software.  For example, a developer of an Office XML Reference Schema-compliant solution cannot use any of the open source licenses that expressly permit license sublicensing (most) and in the case of the open source licenses that don't expressly allow or disallow it, Microsoft's patent license which forbids such transferrability takes precedence.  So, if Pacheco is looking for a specification that actually does dictate business model, then he need look no further than Microsoft's formats -- the same formats that a nullification of ITD's newly instituted ODF policy would favor.

Going back to the car analogy, consider the fact that Ford doesn't make the tires it puts on its vehicles and that its standard wheel size sets up the competition for Good Year, Bridgestone, Firestone, Pirelli and other tire manufacturers to compete for not only Ford's business (since it delivers all of its cars with tires), but also for it's customers' business (eg: Massachusetts). This is very different from the Office XML Reference Schema ecosystem where Microsoft makes the equivalent  of the standard wheel (the schema) as well as the tire that fits it (Microsoft Office).   Until the point at which productivity suite developers rally around Microsoft's Office XML Reference Schema (which they haven't) the way many have around ODF, usage of Microsoft's file formats pretty much mandates the use of a Microsoft-based solution.  So, compared to ODF, usage of Microsoft's formats is more akin to telling Pacheco what kind of tires he can use. 

As for the remainder of what Pacheco said, according to OASIS general counsel Andy Updegrove's account of an ODF summit that was hosted by IBM over the weekend, Quinn, who was in attendance admitted that there was probably more he could have done to garner acceptance of ITD's selection of ODF as the standard format for Massachusetts' Executive Branch.  As such, if it takes an independent review to get more of the people with concerns on board, then it should be done.  My sense is that the selection ODF as a standard format (or a standard wheel) can hold up to pretty much any such review (as long as that review is free from politics).  While opponents will surely find some negatives to going with ODF as can be found with any alternative in any decision, an honest and transaparent review of ODF should prove the benefits of it to be too overwhelming to dismiss.  That said, the current timing (January 1, 2007) which, due to certain concerns -- particularly those from the disability community -- could very well be unrealistic.  Winning over some opponents may be as simple as switching the date to a point after which ODF's benefits are not just on a bullet chart, but physically demonstrable as well.

Topics: Open Source

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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