CyberTech Rambler

September 27, 2005

Massachusetts vs Microsoft (Last Updated 10 Oct)

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 5:44 pm

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council hosted a meeting in which representatives of the state discuss the state’s recent proposal to standardize on Open Document Format (The mp3/ogg is 2 hours long. A summary is available here). It helps me understand the whole issue of “Open Standard” from Massachusett’s view point. It centered on the question of “sovereignty”, i.e., the state ability to provide unencumbered access to all public documents. With this, the state decided to use only “open standard”-based document format. The state criteria had caused it to exclude Microsoft’s XML Schema. That decision is a surprise.

Hence, not surprisingly, the meeting focuses very heavily on why Microsoft’s XML Schema is not acceptable. The state’s representatives really know what they are doing and answered all questions adequately, demonstrating that they had thoroughly research the issuesbefore forming their decision. Unlike, I must say, Microsoft representatives who came with a prepared script and either cannot or will not adapt that script to argue their case in the light of changing circumstances. Most damning of all is their failure to do their homework on Open Document Format. This is demonstrated by making false claims that Open Document Format cannot store voice, image and video, and saying that no software capable of using Open Document Format. These were, of course, corrected by others immediately. However, damages to their credibility was done. (Perhaps Microsoft sent the wrong people to the meeting? [Update, David Berlind thinks so as well, more on the links section.)

They also attempted to bring in their strong suit, i.e., the “cost” of conversion. I understand why they tried this, which unfortunately, was not the issue of interest right now (how to maintain “sovereighty”?) but a procurement issue. At one stage, after Secretary Kriss and Bricklin outlined why the Microsoft’s Office XML Schema is not open (no thrid party participation in modifying it; openness restricted to reading public record [For the record, I believe Microsoft had modified it to read and write public record], forbidding partial implementation [This is a big problem reading the whole complete document is most of the time unnecessary.]), that was the trigger (suprise, surprise) for Microsoft representative to roll in the “we need to protect our intellectual property”. Most Unfortunately, he did it in a accusary tone. Although I know this is classic Microsoft redirection: introducing issues that at face value, looks to be related but cannot withstand scrutiny. However, to Secretary Kriss credits, he did not take the bait and set the record straight.

At one point, Microsoft explained that while they are a member of OASIS (the body that set the Open Document Format), they had chosen not to participate and not to use it in Office 12. Moreover, as they are in a product development push, they imply that they cannot spare time to incorporate Open Document Format. I find this is irrelevent because it is a Microsoft issue: They decide for themselves whether to participate in any body and have to live with the decision. The fact that they are in a product development push is at best an excuse to delay implementation of Open Document Format should they choose to implement it, not a valid reason for the decision not to implement it. They did point out that since Microsoft XML Schema is in XML, a converter may be already available. [The ETRC requires Open Document Format as the native save format. This is a bummer for Microsoft. They argued that they cannot store everything they in Office 12 in Open Document Format. OK, why not just engineered a “degraded” version on CD/DVD for the State Government. Afterall, the effort is minimal, simply write a converter to filter to and from Open Document Format and attached it to the “Save” menu. It is certainly much easier than creating the crippleware known as Windows Starter Edition.]

Microsoft and their associates certainly did pull all their stocks in argueing their case. However, I have the feeling that while the whole room is dicussing the issue in question, access to data collected by the government (“soveriegnty”), Microsoft is focusing on pushing its own separate agenda. It is also addressing the issue by trying to frame it their way. [Pamela Jones of Groklaw have a different view, saying they were pressuring and threatening the officials. Se links below.] Instead of understanding and addressing the issues on why their format is not accepted, they chosen to use the “why chose them, not me?” attitude and formulated their questions this way.

One good thing in the discussion is that it had not degenerated into “Massachusetts vs Microsoft” all over again (remember the Windows Monopoly anti-trust case?). Representatives of other companies and organizations back Massachusett’s view by bring in supporting information. This includes Adobe’s confirmation that the restriction on Adobe PDF is minimal (simply that you cannot call it PDF if your derivative does not satisfy interoperability criteria), IBM’s contention that it uses file format pragmatically, not religion, and that the “sovereignty” is not an issue recognized by various governments besides Massachusetts. Overall, as expected, Microsoft did not get its way. I expect the state to put a few arrows into Microsoft, but the fact that they took arrows from other companies, they came out more bruised that I thought they will.

One last thing, I want Secretary Kriss, Mr Quinn and his team to be in charge of my IT. Citizen of Massachusetts, you lucky bastards!

Good links for discussions on the topic:

Groklaw: PJ’s article
Newsforge: [What has Microsoft done for Massachusetts lately?]

Massachusetts Government:
ETRM (Enterprise Technical Reference Model) version 3.5
Comments receive for ETRM
It is unfair to suggest that Microsoft’s comments is by far the longest without explaining the context. Negative comments are usually longer because the author must argue his case. Microsoft had most to lose therefore you do expect a long reply. However, note the strange emphasis on procedural issue. PJ of Groklaw read Microsoft’s stance in the meeting as pressuring the state and threatening them with lawsuits. It is a fair interpretation, and possibly true given the emphasis on procedural issue.

One legitimate question is raised by people with disability. Using Open Document Format might seriouslly complicate their life, as screen readers cannot read Open Document Format now. The state will need to address this issue whether or not is there a American With Disabilities Act. Hopefully. Hopefully with the wide adoption of Open Document Format,
this is a short term issue.

The schedule proposed by the state is a very aggressive one, as a few people points out. The state will have to come out with a realistic schedule, such as that proposed by David Wheeler.

[Update 10 Oct]
Massachusetts has published a FAQ that addresses concerns raised by the comments above. It answers Microsoft’s complains well, besides explaining how they will try to meet the disability issue. To me, the latter is more important than Microsoft’s or any other peoples’ comments.

[Update 29 Sept]
ZDNET : Did Microsoft send the wrong guy to Massachusetts’ ODF hearing?. Berlind argues that either Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates or someone allowed to make one the spot decision should had attended. It is not without precedence that MS top exec drop in when things do not go their way (see Munich case).

[End update]

Notable Quotes:

PJ of Groklaw or maybe someone she is quoting from:
“I think a good test of the license is this: if Microsoft had to license someone else’s file format as a mandatory format in Office, and that format was only available under the same terms Microsoft is offering the Office schemas under, would Microsoft’s legal department accept the terms as-is or not?” [article]

Stephen Walli:
[On the difference between a de facto standard and a de jure standards developed in a consensus-based process] Another categorization attempts to discuss the difference between de jure standards developed in a consensus-based process and de facto standards. A more accurate statement might be de facto technology that describes a market dominant product, rather than a specification for interoperability open to all implementers. [article]


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