Microsoft and public access

Microsoft and public access

Summary: As long as Microsoft is unwilling to guarantee that documents created with its tools are readable from any platform, they should expect to be cut out of the public sector.

TOPICS: Microsoft

The arrogance of Microsoft personnel never ceases to amaze me. I am not quite sure why the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should enter the Open Document Format discussion at all, but it seems pretty clear to me that Massachusetts takes obligations to its citizens quite seriously.

The Open Document Format debate, as spotlighted in David Berlind's recent Microsoft vs. Mass., has one component that no one in the public sector should be dismissing--that of access to public information.

In a recent blog, it was pointed out that critical public access to applications for relief were noted to require the user to have IE on their home computers. Of course, this is common practice -- but should it be the practice anywhere in the public sector?

Obligating a citizen to download a free document reader (one that runs under any operating system available today) is one thing, but obligating a citizen to own a Windows-based system and MS-Office is quite another. So what if 400 million people use MS-Office everyday? We can say with absolute certainty that there are people in Massachusetts who own Macintosh computers and Linux computers and UNIX computers.

I didn't see anything in David's article that suggested the the Commonwealth of Massachusetts objected to Microsoft protecting its IP. All they were saying is that if Microsoft wanted them to use its document formats, that Microsoft needed to make those formats accessible to those who did not own Windows and Office. Seems reasonable to me.

Sure, today you can read Microsoft document formats in StarOffice, and that is likely to continue -- just as long as Sun and Microsoft are collaborating. But, it wasn't all that long ago that Microsoft and Sun were at each other's throats. And judging by the twists and turns in Microsoft's long-running "relationship" with IBM, we have no reason to assume that Bill Gates and Scott McNealy will not be sniping at one another once again -- any day now. OpenOffice is even more vulnerable to Microsoft's urge to raise IP issues every time someone downloads it for free.

As long as Microsoft is unwilling to guarantee that documents created with its tools are readable from any platform that the citizens of any state or nation might wish to use, they should expect to be cut out of the public sector -- where access to public information is a protected right.

Topic: Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Editing

    Why is the string

    [i]it was pointed out that critical public access to applications for relief were noted to require the user to have IE on their home computers. Of course, this is common practice ? but should it be the practice anywhere in the public sector?[/i]

    repeated three time?
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Why is this an issue?

    It's been interesting watching Microsoft go from fighting to break into the enterprise, to slugging it out with other contenders, to complacent monopoly, to their present position.

    They've now reached the point where they take their monopoly as having the force of law, with any challenge to their power being [i]obviously[/i] illegitimate somehow.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • I think I can answer that to a degree

      but i doubt everyone will agree, so here it goes. I think MS is getting far too big for their britches. I remember when Gateway was smaller, and their customer service was top notch. They all of a sudden got huge, and went down hill from there, where are they now? They are known for crappy computers, terrible support, and for buying probably the worst business decision ever, buying E-Machines.

      MS needs to get knocked down a few levels, just like IBM did and all the huge companies before. They need to re-learn that the customer is what dictates how things should work because they are the people who pay for the stuff, not their telling you how it should work and deal with it.
  • Perfect World = ...

    Format, Word Processing - 1 Each.
    Format, Data Base - 1 Each.
    Format, Presentatin - 1 Each.

    Applications available for above - Thousands (Including Office).

    Never happen.
    • True enough, BUT ...

      Adobe manages to keep themselves on top in their sector without giving up their IP rights by giving away platform-independent document readers. More and more sites are providing documents in this format for this very reason. If MS doesn't want to share its IP, then this is the solution.
      M Wagner
  • If you're concerned...

    ... about citizens being able to read documents in a given format, ask yourself how many are able and are likely to be able to read ODF documents?

    Without downloading a program unknown to most of the population is... none.

    Now, ask yourself how many people would be able to open a format Microsoft does support, most formats not requiring Office?

    Why almost everyone with a computer. And those exceptions typically know how to download a reader.

    The MA officials excluded much of the population with their decision. Of course; the real format for public use is pdf.

    But pdf has a problem: the latest Reader software doesn't do well on old machines.

    I've helped friends with that problem by giving them Reader 5.0. I'm now looking at a free program that is supposed to read pdf files and is even lighter than 5.0. We'll see.
    Anton Philidor
    • OK

      But this does not prevent the Commonwealth from creating a viewer for their documents. They could create a web based viewer or a downloadable one. One that would not be subject to the twists and turns of a vendor.
      Just like anyone is able to implement PDF, anyone should be able to implement the document format that the local/state/federal public sector uses. Without strings attached.
      MS closed themselves out of this. This is a problem for MS.. No one else.
      • Government in the role of software vendor ?

        So now you're saying that the government should be in the role as the software vendor ?

        This just doesn't go well with our free market society. I'll rather that they say all their vendors and internal use would have to be standardized on Open Office.
        • Not the vendor

          They should not play a role as the software vendor. But they SHOULD play a role as a customer. They should be a highly demand customer that stops in the office every day to complain about every minor detail (everybody who has customers has someone like that). And because this is a government of the people they should do whatever they can to ensure that people will be able to read their documents today, tomorrow, and forever. And they should also make sure it's a format that any program may be capable (if it chooses to) of reading the document.

          Now the person you are responding to mentioned that the Commonwealth could choose to create their own viewer. They could make their own, but more likely they would outsource that to a competant software maker. Indeed right now there is no need to since every office suite maker other than MS is making their own software, so MA should not need to bother. But if ever there was a need for a someone to create such a program in the future, whether it's a government entity or private, they will be able to without fear of patent or copyright infringement.
          Michael Kelly
    • Anton, why bother responding?

      The real issue didn't get any play from ZDNet at all. The MA CIO stated that price WAS a big issue, especially with Office 12 looming large on the horizon requiring Vista and viewing XP as a legacy system. That MA then turned around and claimed that Adobe was 'just open enough' for them showed this was a sham.

      The rest of the argument regarding file formats is just fluff and fill.
      • Cost becomes a factor ...

        ... because dependence upon MS file formats (or anybody else's) means the when the vendor protecting that file format no longer recognizes it as input, the customer's ONLY choice is to upgrade all of their software AND all of their archives.
        M Wagner
    • uhhhh Anton....

      "Without downloading a program unknown to most of the population is... none."

      then you said:
      "Why almost everyone with a computer. And those exceptions typically know how to download a reader."

      these same people you speak of in 2 phrases, but it's the same question. These people you speak of, how many know of the readers you think? Go ask normal home users if they know of a word excell powerpoint reader at let me know what you find out. No matter what, they'll have to download, and people not using windows systems are out of luck. I like what Marc said, everyone everywhere, no matter what OS and Office suite.
  • Then all government documents should be the most common denomiator

    By your standard, then we needed to go all the way down to the most common denomiator.

    We should go back to use standard ASCII text in this case. Except that it can't be read by those who does not own a computer. Or if they would prefer a 'Spanish' encoded document.
    • I find it fascinating

      That this "least common denominator" meme has appeared so nearly simultaneously from all of Microsoft's apologists.

      Especially since ODF is nothing of the sort.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • You just have no clue

      Mass official didnt exclude Microsoft because the format was not basic enough, in fact they would have probably kept it if Microsoft woulb have comply with what was needed.

      They wanted to be able to be able to access their own legitimate work (made using a word processing software) in many years from now.

      Spanish is not a document format and ASCII is something already in use in ANY word processing software. In fact ASCII wouldnt be usefull at all with all documents written in other language that english because of hyphens.

      You have to understand that a government must be able to access their own work using something that they can implement hundred of years from now using publicly available document standards.

      I hope you can get it that if Microsoft would have oppened their documents, they would have been able to be included in the list of legible software purveyor.

      Make no mistakes, in any buisiness, the customer is always right.
      • centuries

        States have to keep some documents available to the public for literally centuries. If you have Software Assurance for Windows and Office, you are on a three-year upgrade. If you get the two for $300, then a century is 33 upgrades for a total cost of $10,000 per desktop.
      • Clues, hyphens and stuff

        Anyone who tells someone else that they 'just have no clue' should pay special attention to their own posts.
        >>In fact ASCII wouldnt be usefull at all with >>all documents written in other language that >>english because of hyphens.

        Flash ... hyphens are part of the basic ASCII character set. Try typing ALT 045 if you don't have it on your keyboard. In fact, if it's not on your keyboard then you might consider using a teletype instead ... because it's on that keyboard.

        And in this entire thread, why didn't anybody know that Microsoft has provided a Free Word reader from day one?

    • In the extreme, the "lowest common ...

      ... denominator" (hereinafter, LCD) is the only choice. In practice, relying on formats which are easily accessible from any computer using free cross-platform readers (such as PDF) is just as good. Other possible widely-used formats (which can be read by ANY modern computer include TXT, and RTF. Over time, the LCD moves forward because the original standard is now obsolete but is still accessible with newer tools. (You can still read TXT from anywhere, for instance.)
      M Wagner
  • Wrong Question

    The question is not about the 400 + million Windows desktops running MS Office. That's a red herring. The real question is how many of those 400 million desktops can run MSXML, and how many can run OpenDocument.

    This is a no brainer. OpenDocument, even with the advanced collaborative computing features like XForms, SVG and SMiL, will run on all 400 million Windows systems with a simple cost of the free download of And run today!

    Of the 80,000 desktops owned by the Commonwealth, OpenDocument ready applications will run on every single system. And run today. 2.0 also includes bulk conversion tools for converting content stores of over 25 different file formats, including the entire span of MS Office versions. Convert the suckers and be done with it.

    MSXML has rigorous and expensive requirements. So it is not available on the 400 million desktops. In fact, it's available on less than 8% of those 400 million.

    The MSXML requirements are Windows XP, MS Office XP Professional 2003, IE 6.0, the .NET framework, and at least a few of the MS Server Suite products, depending on just how much collaborative computing functionality you need. The MS Server Suite includes Exchange, SharePoint, Collaboration Server, Server 2003 ? Active Directory, and MS Office Server.

    This is high overhead to the extreme. IDC estimates are that only 8% of Windows desktops currently meet the above MSXML requirements.

    For Massachusetts, with 80,000 desktops, the percentage of units able to run MSXML is zero. The hardware and software upgrade cost for minimal MSXML functionality are estimated to be over $50 million dollars. The cost of training and installing the free OpenDocument ready system is $5 million.

    Is this really all that much of a decision? Duh!

    It's clear that OpenDocument and the combination of - Mozilla own the Windows desktop monopoly. It's only a matter of time until the great herd realizes that Microsoft has abandoned the monopoly base, and is trying to force everyone to upgrade both their hardware and software to the Win XP ? MS Office Professional ? MS Server Suite stack just to have the equivalent collaborative computing capabilities that are included in the free download.

    Some might argue that i'm stretching the case here by insisting on MS Office XP Professional 2003 as part of the MSXML equation. But this is a government we're talking about here. Governments run on forms. To get MS Forms, one has to have InfoPath installed, and that locks everyone into the MS Office XP Professional 2003 stack. Badabing badaboom.

    OpenDocument on the other hand features XForms. In XForms isn't an auxiliary product costing $350. It's a feature included with the free download!

    Massachusetts of course chose not to argue the obvious economic advantages of OpenDocument. Instead, they argued Open Standards, Open XML, Open file formats, SOA loose coupling, and the Open Internet as the future of highly interoperable information systems. For sure that argument is enough to knock out the proprietary and restrictive MSXML proposal.

    They also argued sovereignty. That's funny. Chairman Bill thinks he's the sovereign despot of the digital civilization. Massachusetts argues that they have sovereign rights over public information critical to the function of government. Chairman Bill counters that his intellectual property rights and assertion of ownership claims trump their phony claims of any sovereignty over their own information.

    Why would anyone continue to do business with someone who is threatening to sue them over their assertion that their information might actually belong to them?

    One final point. MSXML breaks the promise of XML. There is no way short of reverse engineering the MSXML binary key, to transform MSXML into OpenDocument or any other conforming Open XML technology. On that single point alone, MSXML should have been excluded from consideration. Forget about the license restrictions and patent encumbrances. It's not true XML!

    At best, in a moment of extreme optimism and blind hope, we might say that MSXML is crippled XML.

    At worst? MSXML is a trap. Don't cut your reverse engineering corp loose any time soon, cause you're going to need them for as far into the future as we can see.


    OASIS OpenDocument TC, representing the community
    • I think you made my point ...

      Unless MS is willing to provide free coss-platform document readers to anyone who wants them (a la the Adobe PDF reader), no govenment can use those MS document formats without denying access to public information to those citizens who do not buy those MS products which can read those formats. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is making the only responsible decision it can -- to rely only on document formats which can be read from any platform available today.
      M Wagner