Microsoft vs Mass.: What ever happened to 'The customer is always right'?

Microsoft vs Mass.: What ever happened to 'The customer is always right'?

Summary: Is it just me, or is there something highly unusual about the extremely hard time that Microsoft is giving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over its decision to move to Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for storing files produced by productivity applications like word processors and spreadsheets?  Whatever happened to the old saying that "The customer is always right (even when they're wrong)?

TOPICS: Microsoft

Is it just me, or is there something highly unusual about the extremely hard time that Microsoft is giving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over its decision to move to Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for storing files produced by productivity applications like word processors and spreadsheets?  Whatever happened to the old saying that "The customer is always right (even when they're wrong)?"

Just when I thought I beat this issue to death with several blog posts, along comes a recording of the Open Format Meeting that was held in Massachusetts by the Mass Technology Leadership Council where the Commonwealth of Massachusetts heard feedback "on the latest draft iteration of their Enterprise Technical Reference Model, specifically the section on document formats."  Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss was in attendance as was the Commonwealth's CIO Peter Quinn.  Although than MP3 audio file of the entire meeting can be downloaded off the Net, text transcripts are beginning to show up.  The first one I noticed was on one of Tim Bray's posts (see New England Town Meeting) where he excerpted an exchange between Microsoft National Technology Officer Stuart McKee and other Microsoft representatives

What stood out to me is that Quinn (and other Massachusetts officials) spelled out in no uncertain terms what was important to the Commonwealth, what the Commonwealth's definition of open was, and what Microsoft had to do to satisfy the Commonwealth's requirements. 

On the "of critical importance" front, the discussion covered in great detail what it means for a state in the United States to maintain its sovereignty and how state officials felt that proprietary technologies are at odds with that sovereignty. The officials made it pretty clear that it felt as though the intellectual property rights (IPR) that Microsoft is maintaining with respect to its file formats were at odds with the non-negotiability of the Commonwealth's sovereignty.  They acknowledged that  it had no problem with software companies maintaining IPR on the software itself, like Microsoft Office.  But, to the extent that public documents will be stored electronically using certain file formats, there's minimal room for IPR to be connected with those formats.

Mass. officials also gave their definition of an open specification as one that meets the following three criteria:

  • It must have no or absolutely minimal legal restrictions attached to it. 
  • It must be published and subject to peer review
  • It must be subject to joint stewardship

With the three criteria laid out, the officials explained to Microsoft's McKee and others that if Microsoft dropped it's patents on the file formats, really published the standard so it was available for peer review, and made the current versions and future modifications subject to joint stewardship, that it would be open to reconsidering its policy.

As you can see from the transcript on Bray's blog, and as you can hear from the audio file, McKee and the others representing Microsoft were fairly respectful in their delivery.  But, while I wasn't present to see the body language, the audio made it seemed as though they were out of place in conservative New England culture -- cracking coffee jokes at a relatively serious meeting and saying things like "There's 400 million people using Office. It's embarrassing to say that very frequently." No one was laughing.  At one point, during a sort of tongue-in-cheek invitation to an IT matters debate, McKee confused New England Talk Radio Host Howie Carr with Harvard's Nicholas Carr

As a result of the deliberations with Massachusetts, Microsoft apparently swallowed a bitter pill by making the license to the Office file formats perpetual and royalty-free.  McKee noted this was a big change for Microsoft.  While Microsoft has come a long way in addressing the Commonwealth's concerns, rather than adopting a conciliatory tone (and this is my opinion), Microsoft's overall response in the meeting challenged the Commonwealth's logic and put state officials on the spot, forcing them to explain their rationale in a way that most companies would never tolerate (rather than saying "We totally get it, we hear you, we understand your requirements, and we'll get back to you").  At one point, Microsoft's Brian Berg made it clear that he and others had gone to the Commonwealth's Senators with the issue.  Based on his account of those discussions, he briefly called into question the Commonwealth's execution of the legislation that led to policy requiring ODF.

At one point [time code 1:12:20], McKee lectured Secretary Kriss on how Microsoft's intellectual property is key to the company's revenue generation and tax payments and then asked Kriss "Are you talking about extinguishing IP rights?" Responded Kriss:

Of course not. Intellectual property is extremely important. But when it comes to this specific issue and the definition of a file format, you can always make the claim of intellectual property to the definition of a file format.  That is any corporation's or any individual's rights to do so..  It's just that that doesn't serve the needs of a sovereign state.  Here we have a true conflict between the notion of intellectual property and the notion of sovereignty.  I would say 100 percent of the time in a democracy, sovereignty trumps intellectual property. 

Massachusetts is currently ground zero for the soul searching Microsoft must do. If it capitulates, as it already has  to some extent on the license to its formats (thanks to Massachusetts), then the rest of the world gets to benefit from the new license terms.  In that respect, the license terms are more like a house of cards.  If the formats get opened (Massachusetts-style), then a piece of the footing on which the entire Office and Windows franchise stand will have crumbled and what happens next is anybody's guess.  At the same time, Microsoft's business model and tactics are being drawn into question. 

During the deliberations, Massachusetts officials also made it clear that the cost of sticking with Microsoft was a major pain point, citing how the next version of Office (to the best of their knowledge) will not run on Windows 2000 and they'll be forced to upgrade a bunch of operating systems too (the state has 80,000 employees).  With a format like ODF, back-level support -- even if the format matures -- won't be subject to the whims of a single vendor's decision.  That's what sovereignty is about.

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
  • Finally someone that gets it and has the cajones

    to pursue it. Go Massachusettes! Kick their fanny's and let them know they can no longer bully people around and charge outrageous prices for re-hashes of old software.
    Linux Guy 1000
    • Massachusetts sovereign???

      While agreeing with Massachusetts' position and result, it is certainly ironic to see the penultimate Yankee state claiming States Rights!
      • re:Massachusetts sovereign???

        Penultimate? Next-to-the last in what?
  • Well, duh

    One of the characteristics of a monopoly is dictating terms to the customer.

    Another is rising prices.
    • A monopoly in name only ...

      Sure, MS has a HUGE share of the market and for that reason has been declared by the courts to be a monopoly but the fact of the matter is that I can buy a personal computer from any number of sources -- at price-points from as low as $300 --and it might come preloaded with Windows, or MacOSX, or Linspire, or Solaris, or JDS.

      Or, I can dump the pre-loaded OS and install FreeBSD or SCO's UNIX SVR4 or Solaris or JDS or Novell Linux Desktop or Fedora or any number of other Linux flavors -- a number of which are free or almost free.

      The main difference between these choices is that only the preloaded choices do not require the user to have any special knowledge.

      Beyond that, the preloaded choices, like the self-loaded choices, differ in price-point, available applications, and availability. Nevertheless, the choices are there to be found.

      Whether it is wise of not, apparently, the vast majorty of users prefer Windows.
      M Wagner
  • opportunity for third party word to ODF converter

    I am amazed at corps that pull the disgusting going to the bosses o fthe decision-makers to complain approach.
    The other day a guy pushed a free trial of a internet use monitor on me. I said "ok but it'll be here for a couple of months" because I'm away for three weeks on holiday. When I came back, it hadn't performed very well, and I talked to the guy about sending it back. Minutes later he was complaining to my boss about me!
    Needless to say, that corp is NEVER going to get our business. And I'll tell the story to any IT staff when the issue comes up.

    I guess in this case the Microsoft employees can't have any really good intellectual reasons to argue, since they resort to complaining to the bosses of the Mass. employees.

    Microsoft has made it's products more secure, but it seems like they are still weighed down by these corporate "i'm mr important" bad-boys.
    They need to restructure these guys out of jobs to keep business sweet.
    • But which third party has access to the complete MS format specifications?

      And why would MS license the specifications to this 3rd party when it obviously has no desire for an MSOffice-to-ODF converter to exist? (Obvious, because if MS did want such a converter to exist, it would implement it itself and be done with it.)
      • AFAIK office12 xml is freely usable apart from for GPL apps

        Therefore someone could write and sell a office12xml to ODF converter, or even make it freely available, just not GPL. Could be as simple as an XSL stylesheet.
        • And what about BSD apps?

          Or any other "Free" (as in "Freedom") license, come to that?
  • Question for Microsoft

    David, why don't you contact Microsoft and ask them the following question:

    "If a substantial portion of Office users indicated that they would like Microsoft to add Open Document import/export ability to Office, would Microsoft do it?"
    • got an answer

      Brian Jones answered the question "maybe" See the comments section

      But David, I still think it would be good if you asked them.
  • So they still wouldn't be satisfied

    I think it's apparent from your article that even if MS were to open its file formats completely, MA still wouldn't be satisfied. The end of it indicates that after MS (theoretically) opens its file formats, MA is next going to demand that Office 12 be made to run on Windows 2000. What would come after that? How about adding the ability to save in XML in Office 2000, and give them the upgrade for free. And after that, "We want Office 2000 to support the ODF."

    I think a reason that MS can question the officials about their choice is 1) they ARE public officials who are publicly accountable for their decisions, corporations are not so much, and 2) I think MS might've been trying to gauge how much of this decision was a political move and how much of it was out of a real practical need. That's what I'd do, anyway. If I were MS, I wouldn't want to get in the midst of a political fight. Let MA hang itself if that's what they want to engage in. On the other hand, if MS's software/file formats is clearly deficient in meeting the needs of the state on the merits, and that's the chief concern, then I think they'd be more receptive to negotiating.
    Mark Miller
    • If Microsoft was based in MA instead of Redmond, would we be seeing this?

      You make some good points. You cannot separate the politics away from this. MA has been going after Microsoft for years even after the Feds and States settled with Microsoft.

      If Microsoft was based in MA instead of Redmond generating revenue for MA, would we be seeing this? Probably not.

      I agree that Microsoft should open up their document formats, they pretty much already are because OOo, StarOffice, Word Perfect can already write to Office formats. But we should be very careful when we talk about ODF XML documents because my tests have shown that they are about 100 times slower to create and load using OpenOffice than existing Microsoft binary formats.
      • MA's monopoly prosecution not a factor

        Secretary Kriss made it absolutely clear that the reports in the press that this initiative is connected to previous litigation are unfounded and false. I believe him. If you listen to the recording, the state's business and technical rationale stand are their own as justification. None of the litigious history needs to play a role.
        • I could be wrong, but people do have their biases

          But people do have their biases and it's hard to deny that MA has a very long and bad history with Microsoft. Is Microsoft the only company with proprietary file formats? Why doesn?t MA dictate to Adobe that they be granted shared control of the PDF format? Why is everyone else off the hook when it comes to price negotiations? Anyone who has ever priced software from Oracle knows that they make Microsoft stuff look cheap. Anyone who has priced Red Hat Enterprise support contracts will start to appreciate how cheap Microsoft licensing and support is. I hear what you are saying but it?s very hard for me to separate the anti-Microsoft politics in play here.

          I believe that Microsoft should open their own existing file formats, but shared control of a Microsoft format seems to be going a bit far. On the other hand, ODF and have shown in my tests to be absolute pigs when it comes to processing and memory overhead. ODF and OOo are literally two orders of magnitude slower and eats up tons of memory while in use compared to Microsoft Office.

          I think it was foolish of Microsoft to debate this issue the way they have been doing it the last few weeks because it's a lose-lose situation from a PR stand point.
          • I agree with you.

            You could be wrong.

            And yes, people do have their biases. We certainly know what yours
            are. Perhaps that's why you're so frequently wrong.
            Immanuel Tranz-Mischen
          • George Ou's hidden agenda

            Obviously we all know by now about George's connection with Microsoft. Though he keeps denying it, it doesn't take rocket science to figure it out. Or may be he's truthful but just looking to get a job at Redmond?
            Hmmm.... Is that why he's playing nice with John Carroll?
          • Yes they do

            "I could be wrong, but people do have their biases"

            Yes they do, and this coming from George;-)
            Richard Flude
          • Yes, every one posting here does

            We ALL have our biases. You, me, everyone posting here. Anyone who says they don't have a bias is lying. This is why when the state says there is no ulterior motive here, I have a hard time believing them with their track record and the fact that they're only picking on Microsoft.
          • Only MS has to offer OpenDocument formats?

            Or were you thinking that everyone else already does offer them so only MS is being picked on?

            Please elaborate...
            Still Lynn