MSFT vs MASS, Mistakes They Made

Saturday, 2006-December-30 at 19:31

Microsoft thinks it was "railroaded" in Massachusetts last year.  ZDNet has the story.  This is their side of the story, part of an effort they are making to force the state's IT staffers to give up on OpenDocument Formats (ODF).  In short, the battle is joined, and the state government is the place.  Similar battles are coming soon to Minnesota and California, where similar proposals are being considered.

According to Dan Bricklin–Massachusetts resident, co-inventor of the electronic spreadsheet and moderator of the Sept.16 meeting–the state was clearly in pioneering territory (as governments go), flush with feedback similar to what developers get during the software usability testing process. “One way I now see what’s going on looking in from the outside, the Commonwealth had a general need in terms of wanting there to be a wide range of producers and products,” Bricklin told me, referring to solutions that could read and write whatever format Massachusetts settled on in order for the Massachusetts public to have unfettered access to the state’s public documents. “[Massachusetts] could have looked at it from their own viewpoint of what they thought was needed legally. But it didn’t matter what they thought. What mattered was how developers saw that. If too many developers or their lawyers had any discomfort with the license, then that meant there was enough of a question as to the specification’s openness. It meant there was a risk to the availability of solutions.”

What this seems to be saying is that the state wanted to have the ability to select from multiple vendors, each supporting the same standardized file formats, and they felt that the Microsoft / ECMA OOXML formats would not be open enough to assure that this would happen.  On the other hand, it is clear that ODF's formats are open, since several open source projects and commercial software vendors have made sure that they implemented the standard.  Did Microsoft have the opportunity to address those objections early enough in the process?

Although [Microsoft's] Yates argues that Microsoft wasn't given a similar opportunity to redress [licensing questions about the OOXML formats], Sun's Johnson suggested that the public nature of Massachusetts' deliberations– including the inundation of comments in 2005H1 and the clear tenor of the June 9 meeting between state officials and "industry"– was enough writing on the wall for Microsoft to know that it had a problem on its hands and what the sticking points might be. According to Johnson, Massachusetts initial approval of Microsoft’s file formats in early 2005 was still subject to a public comment period, and it would have been premature for anyone to assume that any decisions were final.

The issue was (and has been from the beginning) the licensing and terms under which a competitor could implement the OOXML file formats, versus the licensing and terms under which a competitor could implement the ODF file formats.  Apparently, Sun was questioned about any "IP" rights it might have in the ODF file formats and responded with a license-free right to use any and all "IP" needed to implement the file formats.  Sun's statement is found here.

These action items practically scream out that, at the time, Massachusetts was undecided on a standard and that the due diligence for choosing one was far from over. Clearly, a new test for openness was being developed and Massachusetts had already started researching the matter. In fact, Microsoft’s team on the job–Stuart McKee, Brian Burke, and Leslie Tan–didn’t have to look far to see some of the criteria for openness that the State was considering. It was displayed in a footnote on the bottom of the June 9, 2005 meeting notes and stated as follows:

Specifically, [Ken] Krechmer, [Fellow, International Center for Standards Research, University of Colorado] notes, standards creators typically consider a standard to be open if the creation of the standard follows the tenets of open meeting, consensus and due process; implementers of an existing standard would call a standard open when it serves the markets they wish, it is without cost to them, does not preclude further innovation (by them), does not obsolete their prior implementations, and does not favor a competitor; and users of an implementation of the standard would call a standard open when multiple implementations of the standard from different sources are available, when the implementation functions in all locations needed, when the implementation is supported over the user’s expected service life and when new implementations desired by the user are backward compatible to previously purchased implementations.

The article concludes:

Given the way this decision will be repeated in other halls of government, I think it can be said that Massachusetts has once again delivered a shot heard round the world. That Microsoft’s biggest competitors were standing by the Commonwealth’s side to help it pull the trigger is evidence of why Massachusetts ETRM 3.5 truly was ground zero in one of this industry’s biggest and most important battles.

Some thoughts: even though this article is from 2005, its content is still fresh and relevant today.  While many of us that are involved in this struggle tend to characterize it as a battle between good and evil, in actuality, it is a battle between freedom and openness for users and competing developers on one side, and control and secret "IP" (with the promise of guaranteed riches) for a smaller number of developers on the other side.  Microsoft has chosen to join with such low-life scum as the RIAA and MPAA against the very customers that made them (and the music and movie industries) rich.

Gartner, a company that does studies on the technology industries, does not believe that Microsoft's OOXML formats will be approved by ISO. See their PDF here.  Since many organizations (such as many government and international agencies and the private industry companies that deal with them) are required to comply with ISO standards, this means that any company that uses OOXML formats for their data is risking loss of their documents.  If you are a committed Microsoft customer, then you should call and write (both) them to request full ODF compatibility in time for your next purchase, telling them that it is important to your business.  If enough paying customers speak up and tell them they need to do this or lose business, then even a company the size of Microsoft will change.

Also, Open Document Fellowship has an explanation of the reasons behind ODF.  I really like the way they give examples of open standards and show why ODF, an open standard, should be used.  I also thought you might like to see Corel's original announcement about support for both ODF and OOXML.

Entry filed under: Computers, Linux, ODF, XML. Tags: .

Predictions OOXML and ODF, Technical Comparisons


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