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

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.

TOPICS: Microsoft

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.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • It's all a joke

    Microsoft's representatives didn't help with their tone, either. It was a somewhat informal meeting, but the jokes about coffee came across as belittling. The overall impression was that Massachusetts was in the unenlightened wilds far from the center of civilization that produces MSOffice and Starbucks.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • They insulted our coffee?

      They insulted our coffee!?!?! Now I'm mad.

      Typical Microsoft. Use the Statehouse office coffee for their comparison. There's plenty of independent coffee joints in the area that knock the socks off Starbucks.

      So there.
  • Only thing to do next...

    ... Is to see how will ODF (.odt/s?) be implemented and the degree of sucess they have when converting from MS-Office formats (current) to the new one; and if any body else within the US will follow.
    • ODF

      ODF is already implemented in OO.org (Open Office) 1.15 (The version that runs on Win 9X and higher), OO.org 2.0 Beta, KOffice, and Abiword (Part of Gnome Office) through Plugin.

      IBM and SUN have both announced conversion tools to be realeased in late 2005 and 2006.

      Also Corel was one of the authors of the ODF format, along with SUN, IBM, Boing, KOffice Developers, and others so WP most likely will support it too. MS announced it would not support it at all.
    • Microsoft's cornerstone

      Closed formats are one of the biggest corner stones of MS strategy in everything they do. In fact, the closed format is the only thing that keeps MS office alive, in addition to deliberatly broken compatibility between various versions of office.

      ODF does not have these problems.
  • Great stuff

    This is the seed that will blossom into killing MS proprietary lock-in, and free governments and businesses and individuals into using what best suits them, and have complete control of their own documents.

    This is great for customers, users, businesses, governements, and competitors of MS. Eventually, MS will have to complete on a level playing field, if enough organizations follow the Massachucetts model (and many inevitably will).

    And it's great to see that the world famous MS anti customer arrogance finally got the best of them.

    The proprietary lock-in monopoly / empire is starting to crumble.
    • Not many will follow Mass...

      OpenDocument format caters to the lowest common demoninator: You lose alot of the high end formats that are associated with proprietary formats.

      As for "proprietary lock-in", last I checked pretty much every company with a product worth a damm had proprietary format: Office, WP, Quark, AutoCAD, CadKey, Photoshop, the list goes on.

      When Mass gives up the things that Office (or any other "proprietary" program) allows you to do above and beyond what the OpenDocument standard dictates, What then

      A 2nd program that does this, and then a 3rd one that takes care of that.

      Sounds like they're heading right back in the opposite direction...
      John Zern
      • Re: Not many will follow Mass...

        [i]OpenDocument format caters to the lowest common demoninator: You lose alot of the high end formats that are associated with proprietary formats.[/i]

        This may be true, I don't know that much about ODF. However, obviously MA values open standards more than it values high end formats, whatever they may be.

        Did you listen to the audio of the last meeting? I was surprised how knowledgeable Eric Kriss is about technical matters for a state cabinet official. He could more than hold his own. The residents of MA should be proud.

        Oh, all the evidence says MA is just the beginning.

        none none
      • Short sighted


        While I haven't vetted it nearly as much as MA obviously has, MA officials have clearly demonstrated that they understand what the requirements are and what it will take to satisfy those requirements. If ODF isn't up to snuff, I find it unlikely that its backers (IBM, Sun, Wordperfect, etc.) will just let it rot. One of the great things about open standards is that no one company decides when it gets to be improved.

        • ODF backers


          Don't forget that Microsoft sits on the OASIS Technical Comittee, so technically (pun intended) they are one of it's backers as well even if they don't choose to back in in a public discussion with Mass. at this time.

          So if it is "immature" and not in widespread use all they need to do is address these issues by adding standard features and supporting it in their products. Bingo! It's suddenly post-pubescent and near-universal.

          The downside of that would be the loss [of some or all of the] valuable FUD invested into this issue.
          Still Lynn
      • ObQuirk!

        [i]When Mass gives up the things that Office (or any other "proprietary" program) allows you to do above and beyond what the OpenDocument standard dictates, What then[/i]

        Objection, Your Honor! Question presumes features not in evidence!

        Put another way, you're going to have to do more than just [b]assume[/b] that OpenDocument lacks valuable features [1] that other formats provide; to be persuasive you're going to have to provide examples.

        [1] Valuable: Massachusetts uses them now for nontrivial benefit, or part of Massachusetts' roadmap depends on them, or part of Massachusetts' roadmap would materially benefit from them. Stuff like arbitrary placement of strikethrough position probably wouldn't count.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • standards cause worldwide economic downturn.

        You are unutterably right, industry standards are destined to fail and cause a worldwide economic downturn.

        That whole tcp/ip thing, what a disaster that was.
        HTML, not many jobs resulted because of that.

        And the fascist organization, Underwriters Laboratories Inc, their standards have really set the world back.

        Jesh, I you are going to spread FUD, at least spread the good stuff;)

        FDA approval. I guess there are a few groups that disagree with their nonsense.
      • Your assumptions damn your opinion...

        "...When Mass gives up the things that Office (or any other "proprietary" program) allows you to do above and beyond what the OpenDocument standard dictates, What then..."

        If you lack the experience with OpenOffice formats that your comment seems to indicate, I can understand why you are under the misconception that it is 'missing something' that MS Office might offer.

        I've been using OpenOffice exclusively for many months now. Even before that time, I have started a document in Word and then moved it to Oo when it couldn't do what I wanted in Word.

        I can open MS Office docs with Oo, edit them and then save them in Oo or MS O formats. The warning I get is always when I save in DOC format that I will possibly lose formating (though I have yet to see it screw anything up for me). It is not in the forseeable future that I will stress the limits of the Oo feature sets.

        I think that the contary of what you state is true: the more universally powerful, the more universally useful will be what is used universally.
      • They will

        Does any of these support SVG? That's a standard that they are supporting. Don't worry it will be added. Adobe isn't on the committee for nothing either.
  • I'm skeptical that MA would've moved to Office 12

    They clearly indicated that that kind of move was very pricey to them in the Sept. 16 meeting: $50 million to upgrade to Office 12 vs. $5 million for an OpOf migration. At least that was their estimate. I don't know if they were being overly optimistic on the OpOf migration. Nevertheless it was clear in their minds that was the difference in cost.

    One possibility is that MA hoped that perhaps MS would agree to the format terms, so that MA could use what it has: Office 2003, which supports the MS XML format, as opposed to having to migrate to another platform. Just speculating, but had MS agreed to the terms, that may have been satisfactory to MA.

    I think it probably was inevitable that MA would move to ODF anyway, due to the perceived costs that they associated with an upgrade to Office 12.

    I agree with David Berlind in that MS should've sent someone more senior who could've made an on-the-spot commitment. They should have sent them sooner than the Sept. 16 meeting, actually. From listening to it, it does sound like the decision by then was a fait accompli, and all they were really doing, in fairness, was allowing the industry reps. and some independent parties to comment on the decision. Nothing was going to change no matter what anybody said, at least not at that point. As Sec. Chris said, "This is an evolutionary process." He tried to indicate that nothing was set in stone "forever and ever".

    In terms of the timeframe for the migration, both in terms of the format and the requisite switch in application use, I don't think MA is being realistic. That's my one criticism of their decision. They're acting with a sense of urgency, but in that urgency they appeared to me to be blind to the larger problems they may cause with this migration.
    Mark Miller
    • urgency?

      >>In terms of the timeframe for the migration, both in terms of the format and the requisite switch in application use, I don't think MA is being realistic. That's my one criticism of their decision. They're acting with a sense of urgency, but in that urgency they appeared to me to be blind to the larger problems they may cause with this migration.<<

      This discussion has been going on for at least two years. Two years discussion, another year to implement it. Seems reasonable.
    • Not Really

      Even if Mass *had* gone with Office 12, the state would *STILL* have a monster of a job in retraining M$ Office users. So the Question is: IF you *have* to re-train your employees do you re-train them on a product that is OPEN and where you know will be always open, thus not locked out; or, do you update their skills on a propriatary project where the vendor is in control of your data? Do *you* control *your data* or does the *vendor* control *your data*?
      The State of Mass. is not a M$ mouse that must continue to run endlessly around on the M$ provided treadmill. Mass got off that treadmill, as will others.

      And if you think that Office is going to be the *only* thing that is going to drive the mass migration away from M$ think again: there is something tonight on ZDNet's news updates that Vista is going to have some secvurity measure that will ONLY run on Vista compatable machines ( a type of DRM that you won't be able to install on older machines). Once again here is a perfect example of M$ trying to dictate what users must do: IF you want the promised SECURITY features to be found in Vista you will HAVE to go out and BUY A NEW COMPUTER. Do you really think the public will take kindly to that type of talk? I don't thnk so.

      M$ is clueless: They still think that M$ is the ONLY game in town; that users *have* to use M$ OSs and M$ apps, while they say that Linux and Open Source apps are our greast competitors, they really don't believe it -- gee instead of controling 95% of the market, we'll only control 90% of the market. Will that type of near monopolistic control they feel they can throw their weight around. What they fail to see is that Linux and Open Source apps are a REAL alternative to M$. With Mass they just shot themselves in their own foot. Now if they don't want a mass migration away from M$ they are going to be forced to use or include Open Doc. If they don't act now that tiny trickle is about to become a flood: By 2007 with the security lockout in Vista, and the failure to include the Open doc format in Office, people will be jumping ship left and right and heading to either Mac OSX or to Linux -- that assumes that Google has not created a web platform/OS which will be agnostic to the underlying OS. If that were to be the case all you might need is a 286 computer and a floppy disk drive that is capable of running a modem.

      While M$ is not quite dead yet, if they don't wake up real soon, they will be the Monopoly that threw a party to which no one came.
  • Don't break out the funny hats yet

    MS Office format is out but pdf is in. All MS Office products can output pdf format; in fact, pdf is a common format for document exchange, especially between government and contractors, most of whom use MS Office. It won't take much argument to hang on to MS products on the basis of their ability to deliver the "open pdf" format.

    It's a little early to be celebrating.
    Marc Thibault
    • Irony?

      It would be rather ironic if MS got in because of Adobe. Would MS allow Adobe to control its office products' faith? :)
    • Which means?

      Which means Microsoft Office can be used to output the final presentation document, however, they won't be able to edit said PDF in MS OFfice, so that leaves Microsoft off of the development document track, which is where most of the action is.

      So, you tell me. Pretend your a departmental IT manager in MA. You've a choice between buying MS Office and a PDF plug-in and an Open Document compliant editor OR buying an OpenDocument editor that also outputs PDF? Which will you choose? Two tools or one?

      Now let's add that you've only the budget for one tool.

      Catch my point?
      John Le'Brecage