To The Members Of The California State Assembly

Friday, 2007-April-06 at 18:14 10 comments

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion as a citizen and resident of the great state of California. We truly have a great state, which despite many obstacles to overcome, has consistently been a leader in technology and in consumer-oriented legislation.

You are presently considering and debating AB-1668, a bill to move agencies of the state government into the 21st century, to use a set of open, XML-based file formats for office application documents used or produced by state agencies. No doubt you have been bombarded by out-of-state lobbyists campaigning for some secret, yet favorable to themselves arrangement. They use terms that have deep emotional meaning, such as “choice.” But they do not in fact want our state agencies to have a choice of vendors and applications.

There are a great many reasons why California should pass this bill. These range from moral and ethical reasons, to technical reasons, to political and economic reasons.

Let us begin with the moral and ethical reasons:

When California state agencies require proprietary file formats, as has been the case up until this time, this creates a necessity for their contractors, constituents, and any individuals who wish to apply for employment or some form of permit to purchase and utilize the software application that generates that particular format. Because software vendors that have these kinds of monopoly positions realize that this is guaranteed sales, they can price their products far above what they could otherwise charge.

Like anywhere else, California has limits on state resources. We who live here also have limits on our individual resources. By utilizing proprietary file formats in state agencies, the state is mandating that its agencies and citizens spend extra funds to benefit a particular software producer. With this bill, open file format specifications will be required, which means that nearly any software vendor should be able to produce compliant software applications. Added competition tends to reduce the price of a particular kind of product.

AB-1668, by mandating open, vendor-independent file formats for office application documents, will make sure that even our lower-income residents can afford to obtain the correct software to apply for employment, for permits, to run for political offices, or even to file complaints with our consumer protection agencies. Even if there was no other reason for supporting this bill, this is enough to pass it unanimously.

But there are more reasons to support this bill. Although one software maker’s operating systems and office applications run on perhaps 90% of computers, there are still those who have (whether for personal preferences or financial reasons or even security reasons) chosen to use different operating systems and office applications on their computers. With those users, it has sometimes been problematic to use state forms, apply for state jobs, or read state documents.

It would be wrong to intentionally block out those individuals and businesses which do not use Microsoft’s software from dealing with our state government. California has a long history of innovations like the Unruh Brown open meetings act, meant to ensure that all residents are able to participate in their state and local governments. California now has the ability to extend that concept to enable residents to deal with state government without the necessity of purchasing a specific company’s software products. I believe that California should take advantage of that opportunity.

Technical reasons to support AB-1668:

The technical reasons that favor passage of this bill are myriad. However, let me summarize it this way: the formats that have been used historically within state agencies are passing away. There are two main choices for the replacement formats. The first choice, which is likely to be used if AB-1668 passes, is OpenDocument Format (ODF, standardized by the industry organization OASIS and accepted by the ISO as ISO/IEC 26300:2006 [.zip download from ISO site]). ODF can be freely utilized by any person or organization in any software product. There are numerous software products, including office application suites, that can use files produced in ODF file formats.

The competing formats, the Microsoft-only Office Open XML (MS-OOXML, standardized by ECMA as ECMA-376 and currently being discussed in ISO for ratification) are problematic. There are others who can speak to the legal issues that could affect any competing implementation of MS-OOXML. Let me say only this: the patent-protection pledge does not protect anything that is not explicitly specified in the standard. Any reverse-engineered functionality, for example, might blow up in the face of someone that implements MS-OOXML.

MS-OOXML makes a number of amazingly poor choices: an enumerated list of border art, for example. This means that every application that wishes to fully comply with the standard must somehow license the use of those graphics.

Another poor choice: rather than specify things like the separation height of footnotes from past versions of their software, they have compatibility flags that–if implemented–require other software companies to find working copies of older software and work out for themselves how something was formerly implemented. A look at compatibility with the currently-used proprietary binary formats shows that this is difficult to accomplish and takes quite a long time to perfect.

Rather than being designed as an open standard relatively free from dependencies on any particular vendor’s current or past implementation choices, MS-OOXML is designed to build in as many dependencies on one vendor’s products as possible. It is nearly impossible for anyone besides Microsoft to fully-implement the standard, which means that the current situation (including monopolists’ barriers) would be repeated.

MS-OOXML’s standardization limited it to compatibility with Microsoft’s pre-existing choices.

The goal of the Technical Committee is to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications within the Ecma International standards process which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats.

A more complete and technical listing of flaws in MS-OOXML which should be corrected before it is utilized in California state and local governmental agencies is found on Grokdoc.

Let us move on to the political and economic reasons why AB-1668 should be approved.

We understand, of course, that Microsoft has a near-monopoly share of the market. This is not because their products are better, but because computer users need to be able to share documents with their employers, business partners, friends, and family members. Since only Microsoft’s own products can fully understand their file formats, users that use other products have to deal with missing or distorted parts in the documents that they exchange with users of Microsoft’s products.

Noted economist Adam Smith (in The Wealth Of Nations) told us in 1776 what happens when a supplier of a needed product has a monopoly:

The rent of land, therefore, considered as the price paid for the use of the land, is naturally a monopoly price. It is not at all proportioned to what the landlord may have laid out upon the improvement of the land, or to what he can afford to take; but to what the farmer can afford to give.

Again, he says:

…. The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufacture, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.

We have seen simple word processing and spreadsheet applications become a stagnant pool, where little effort has been made to continue to improve their functionality since the time that Microsoft assumed market dominance. Yet, in that time period, office application software has skyrocketed in price. This can only be a consequence of a monopoly, as noted above by Adam Smith.

This is nothing less than an intravenous tap into the economic lifeblood of our state and its citizens, continually draining away financial resources as surely as a giant mosquito.

AB-1668 shifts the power away from vendors and back to the state. It is a step toward restoring balance to our financial condition, both as a state and as individual citizens within the state.

IBM’s Bob Sutor spoke on this very issue before the Texas House and Senate. His words to them apply just as much to California.:

Good afternoon/evening, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. IBM supports this bill. This bill is about the future, increased competition and innovation, and about more choice for Texas. It is completely consistent with the technological and intellectual property directions of the software industry.

The current file formats for how you save office document used by most of you and your citizens are based on technology and practices from the 70s, 80s, and 90s when some companies locked customers into their products and upgrades. This is not acceptable today.

When you and your citizens are effectively restricted to a single software supplier to access government information, you and they pay what I would consider taxes. Open standards avoid this.

I would urge you to read Mr. Sutor’s full remarks, as they are remarkably apt and appropriate for our state as well.

There two more political reasons why AB-1668 should be approved. Every government should rightfully be concerned for its sovereignty and its political and economic integrity. Likewise, the state should be concerned over the concentration of power and market share in the hands of a single vendor.

Economic concentration:

Recently, there was an accidental contamination of pet foods. While no one would or should blame the supplier, the fact that one supplier was behind nearly 100 brands of pet food products made the situation stressful and fearful for pet-lovers all over the nation. I personally spent hours on hold, waiting to talk to people at Pedegree and Purina to see whether I could feed my pets the products I had purchased.

This kind of situation is unavoidable. But when it happens with a supplier that has a large share of the market, its impact is much larger. When computer criminals discover a way to steal passwords from users of brand X software, with 2% of the market, few people are affected. When they can reach users of brand Y software, with 90% of the market, the impact is huge and terrifying, much like the pet food contamination scare.

It is therefore an essential security practice that the particular software applications used within the state and its agencies should be divided among several different competitors. The only way that this can work is if all of those competitors use the same set of standardized file formats and network protocols.

This variety also encourages the growth of unforeseen uses of the technology. Ten years ago, we discovered this with the explosive growth of the Internet and its major subset the World Wide Web, which made the “walled gardens” of AOL, MSN, Prodigy, and Compuserve less desirable than they had previously been.

Sovereignty and political & economic integrity:

We, the people of California, are currently dependent upon a single, out-of-state company for our office applications software needs. While certainly we can purchase the products from various in-state dealers, they in turn have to purchase it from a single out-of-state supplier. This has some severe risks for the state.

What if California were to change its tax laws in such a way that said supplier became angry? Would they withdraw their products from distribution within the state? Would they raise their prices within the state? Would they rewrite their licensing agreements to preclude the enforcement of our laws? (Remember, by purchasing the software and installing it, you agree to the terms of the license agreement.)

What about the circular flow effects? With much of California’s software budget flowing outside of California, how do we generate new jobs to support Californians and taxes to support our state and local agencies?

I am not arguing for a 100% in-state software sourcing policy, but merely for a bill that enables locally-based firms to create software applications which can compete for state purchasing on the basis of price and features, rather than forcing everyone to strive for compatibility with secret, proprietary formats owned and controlled by a single vendor.
AB-1668 enables this to happen–it does not require it–and failing to pass the bill will prevent this from happening.

For these reasons, among the many others that could be mentioned, I call upon the California State Assembly, as representatives of the people of the great State of California, to pass this bill intact (without any weakening amendments) and to quickly pass it on to the California State Senate for quick delivery to the Governor’s desk.

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  • 1. Gary Edwards  |  Saturday, 2007-April-07 at 11:11

    Well said Walt!

    I’ve had a few conversations with members of the California IT committee tasked with studying this legislative proposal. While there is no doubt that the state will be implementing XML to advance their information systems, there is also the problem of “implementation”.

    Meaning, is there a way to implement a legislative mandate with open XML file format conditions only met by ODF?

    Can California IT get from where they are today, with documents and much of the day to day business processes bound to Microsoft Office, to where they would really like to be; able to implement truly open XML along with the many competitive open source and alternative vendor solutions that would follow in the wake of this legislation mandate?

    The barriers to implementing ODF are the same in California as in Massachusetts, Denmark, Belgium and Munich. It’s a two fold barrier, and both aspects must be dealt with.

    The first barrier is of course the proprietary file formats bound to MSOffice. This barrier is easy to overcome with individual desktops, but next to impossible to deal with concerning workgroup-workflow MSOffice desktops.

    The second barrier explains the workgroup-workflow difficulties of the first. The second barrier is that of MSOffice bound business processes, line of business apps, and assistive technology add-ons that dominate day to day business responsibilities.

    After a year long pilot study, Massachusetts came to the conclusion that an ODF plugin for MSOffice was the only way to overcome both barriers while avoiding the heavy cost of disruption or process re engineering that comes with a “rip out and replace” desktop alternative approach.

    Munich decided to give the “rip out and replace” approach a try. It’s costly.

    So California IT must also consider the funding needed to implement this legislation before they can fully support it.

    One of the things we learned from Massachusetts is that the workgroup-workflow problem demands high fidelity conversion of MSOffice binary documents to XML.

    From day one, Microsoft has insisted that this is the single most important objective for a user base (monopoly base) of over 500 million workgroup bound MSOffice desktops.

    Given the nature of workgroup-workflow activities, they are right. There is no workgroup tolerance for degradation in either the presentation, data binding, or content layers of the file format. This is the message that the Massachusetts pilot screamed loudly, and that lead to the unprecedented ODF Plugin RFi.

    Since Microsoft owns and controls both the secret binary file format and, the MSOffice application bindings and dependencies, they know exactly how to deal with the first and second barriers, and make the transition to XML easy.

    Of course, the Microsoft transition to XML is exactly the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

    What happens inside of a MS OpenOfficeXML document is that legacy application and platform dependencies are replaced with advanced Vista Stack based .NET – XAML dependencies. The legacy dependencies that bind documents and business processes to MSOffice today, are being replaced by Vista Stack dependencies. Migrate your business process from the desktop to the Exchange/SharePoint Hub (the center of the Vista Stack), where integration into a swarm of Microsoft applications, services and developer platform facilitated line of business apps is certain, and you’ll perhaps be lock-in for the next fifteen years. Great productivity gains, but a long term monopolist lock-in for years to come.

    Microsoft of course justifies the move to stack based dependencies by claiming that these are “optional”, that other implementers of MOOXML are not required to use these same stack dependencies. Having these “options” in the specification of course guarantees there will be at least two types of entirely incompatible and non interoperable MOOXML documents in circulation. The MOOXML produced by the 500 million workgroup MSOffice desktops, and, those foolish enough to think that MOOXML can be implemented outside the Vista Stack with some semblance of meaningful document exchange.

    Anytime a monopolist lobbies to let the marketplace choose, hang onto your wallet. They are up to no good. Any thought of possible competition in the marketplace is about to take a lasting hit.

    The good news is that everyone knows this. The bad news is that it’s difficult to neutralize the monopolists advantage of 500 million workgroup bound desktops.


  • […] have discussed the general politics of why California needs quick passage of AB-1668. It simply makes good social, political, and economic […]

  • 3. lnxwalt  |  Saturday, 2007-April-07 at 15:48

    That is an interesting question, Gary. I have to say that one advantage is the fact that–regardless of how this goes–the state must spend billions of dollars upgrading whatever software it chooses to use in order to replace the legacy formats with newer ones.

    So I would argue that the state needs to recognize that fact and do it in one chunk, rather than continue to pay monopoly tax for the next fifteen to twenty years. Personally, I believe that once a large enough share of national and regional governments make it clear that MSFT *must* fully-support ODF or lose its contracts, it will take no more than a month for an emergency patch to come out to do so.

    I am going to take a look at Alfresco and Zimbra. I don’t think they have figured out the secret sauce either, but they may still be close enough to use in automated conversion processes.

  • 4. JMXZ  |  Monday, 2007-April-09 at 14:53

    Great letter. Just curious who it was sent to.

    If I understand right, this committee is the one studying the bill?

  • 5. lnxwalt  |  Monday, 2007-April-09 at 16:17

    I sent it to my Assemblyman. I considered sending copies to the members of the committee, and may still do so. The first hearings are on the 17th of this month.

  • 6. John Newell  |  Tuesday, 2007-April-10 at 09:53

    referencing “The first hearings are on the 17th of this month.” JEDE scheduled hearings page says no hearings are scheduled, so of course they do not list a time and place. We note that their quarterly reports page lists the last report in ’04, so anticipate it may be some time before the schedule listing appears.
    Regards, thanks for the reporting, …..niiiiii

  • 7. Zaine Ridling  |  Wednesday, 2007-April-11 at 02:16

    Wow, thanks for sharing this. I learned a few things, and am grateful for all your hard work.

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  • 9. A Few Conflicts In A Longer Struggle « Opportunity Knocks  |  Sunday, 2007-June-10 at 12:36

    […] their office documents, even though ODF is a better choice than NSOOXML from both a technical and a social perspective.  Brian Cronmiller tells us about a parallel situation in history.  I think […]

  • 10. 2007-12-06: First Year « Opportunity Knocks  |  Sunday, 2007-December-02 at 00:06

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