September 22, 2005

What has Microsoft done for Massachusetts lately?

Author: Sam Hiser

Microsoft's Alan Yates steps in the manure in responding to the Massachusetts Information Technology Division's late-August declaration for OpenDocument and other open software standards.

IBM's Bob Sutor and Sun's Tim Bray have already shared constructive and entertaining comments. Sutor, in particular, is keeping us nicely abreast of any worthwhile new items (here's his RSS feed). Nicholas Carr at Harvard Business School has weighed in, and Stephen Walli, an ex-Microsoft manager, gives us a valuable primer on open vs de facto standards in context of Microsoft's letter of response. I hope to amplify those valuable comments here in order to shed more light on Microsoft's extraordinary disposition.

Alan Yates' public letter reveals many chinks in Microsoft's armor and shows his company's lack of fitness, and unwillingness, to compete on a level pitch. This is a letter of arrogance and deliberate misdirection. In it, Yates expresses his warm concern for the citizens of The Commonwealth, his grave misgivings about the appropriate use of their tax dollars, and his fond hopes for their future felicity with office software -- his Office software. The citizens of The Commonwealth surely never encountered this kind of deep feeling from Microsoft before, not while that company charged its rates for software which it never intended -- and today has no means or intent within its business -- to support. His statements betray a jaundiced view and fear of free markets, and resonate with circular logic and disinformation about open standards and OpenDocument in particular.

The letter, which apparently had circulated in talking-points form to all Massachusetts-based technology trade associations (and will no doubt eventually go to the other 49 governors of the U.S. states), contains a farrago of false declarations and is full up with psychological transference in which the gamut of Microsoft's own malpractices are attributed to their rivals. In its way, the letter is a typical Microsoft communication.

Yates says there needs to be more time for "due process."

This is already beginning to feel like a legal document of Dickensian bleakness.

Yates has difficulty with Massachussets' definition of open formats.

He says the State should include his file format in its definition because that's the file format they already use: a non sequitur. He still argues that Massachusetts ought to choose Microsoft's Office upcoming file formats -- which are patent-encumbered, contain proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM), and are fully one year away from being released -- despite the fact that the state has published criteria and requirements that do not tolerate these kinds of data lock-in mechanisms.

Yates calls the OASIS OpenDocument file format standard "immature."

Yates, in a footnote, cites sources which make incorrect statements about and OpenDocument, sources which should be regarded cautiously for having in the past performed sponsored research on behalf of Microsoft:

See J. Wilcox at ("Considering the OpenDocument format is only truly supported by 2.0, which isn't even available yet, I'm at a loss to see how the XML-based format meets the Commonwealth's goals for openness or backward compatibility. Nobody's really using the format yet, right? How, uh, open is that?") In point of fact, Microsoft is unaware of any released and supported software products that currently write to the OpenDocument format.

OASIS OpenDocument is an upgrade of the open XML OASIS-based file format that has been available in and StarOffice since 2000. OpenDocument has therefore met the equivalent of testing, refinement, and improvement in developmental and usage settings for over five years now. OpenDocument is available in 1.1.5 and 2 (beta), both of which are fully supported in the open source community, and by independent software developers around the world.

Between them, and StarOffice with OpenDocument's precursor, have more than 25 million users around the world in more than 75 different language versions of the software. This means that OpenDocument has close to the magnitude of the number of users as any of the several MS Office legacy formats, since the MS Office user-base is fragmented across the new version and several older versions of that discontinuous series of products.

Contrary to statements by Microsoft, by Yates himself, and by unaware journalists, users of 1 do have access to OpenDocument. version 1.1.5, available for free download, opens the OpenDocument file format. Users of the earlier versions of are therefore given access through a free upgrade to OpenOffice.org2's OpenDocument file format. Never throughout the company's existence has Microsoft offered such cross-compatibility support.

OpenDocument, and its closely related precursor, have been in continuous use for longer than any single MS Office file format version was officially supported by Microsoft. Access to OpenDocument-ready applications is free and the file format itself is unencumbered by software patents. This leaves OpenDocument more mature in every sense than the next best file format option offered by Microsoft -- for example, in Office 12 -- which is more than a year away from release.

Stephen Walli is a technologist who worked at DEC and Microsoft; his comment carries the weight of experience:

While Microsoft would love us to believe that this is an "unproven" standard, document format standards are actually amazingly mature at this point in history. You have to set the optic right. We have lots of experience with document formatting standards, all the way back to SGML (somewhat before its time), to HTML for the web, to XML. Even the early SGML work was based on proprietary mark-up and type setting languages from IBM and DEC, and early UNIX systems. We even have the experience collectively in the industry to deal with the differences between page layout (PostScript) and the structure of the information. Like networking protocols, document formats either work or they don't and it's very direct evidence. With the first standard in place, the space will mature to accomodate [sic] new document objects, and the product space will mature as well.

Regarding the maturity of the OpenDocument file format, Yates' objections are false.

Yates says this process runs outside procurement norms.

Thank goodness this process runs outside procurement norms. Only the most inexperienced Microsoft official would raise government software procurement norms as a defense, and thereby shine a light on one of the last legs propping up the Microsoft monopoly of desktop software.

Firstly, procurement has nothing to do with The Commonwealth's declaration for an open file format standard yet, since procurement would come into play later during the implementation of the file format. Procurement is not relevant to this discussion.

If it were, then we can cite a litany of procurement practices by federal, state, and local governments which unfairly deny open source and free software products an opportunity to enter the selection process. This is well documented in the United States, and has been such a problem in some countries (Peru and Brazil, to name two) that their governments have taken the expedient route of legislating national procurement policies which exclude proprietary software.

Finally, raising the issue of procurement is tantamount to a signal that Microsoft has no intention of including OpenDocument in any foreseeable version of MS Office. It is a signal that Microsoft is ruling itself out of the competition in a future procurement process. There is no technical reason Microsoft could not support OpenDocument in Microsoft Office.

Yates raises the spectre of "enormous costs" facing Massachusetts in a file format switch.

This is rich.

Yates' hyperbolic sense of moment is unevenly apportioned. He omits the enormous cost of a possible Microsoft upgrade to Office 12 one day, should Microsoft be so lucky.

And unless Alan Yates is a resident who pays taxes in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, neither he nor his company have any business discussing the state's spending plans.

What's more, it is fair to wonder where Alan Yates gains the confidence to even broach the issue. Is it a bad habit left over from years of corrupted free-market forces? He represents a software vendor, a supplier of goods and services to The Commonwealth. The costs to the State of implementing OpenDocument are none of his business -- unless Microsoft should become a provider of the OpenDocument file format.

It is imperative for observers to understand that the costs of file format and office suite migration are exaggerated by those who stand most to lose from such changes.

Yates highlights the "technical challenges" of changing the State's standard document file format.

As a migration expert, I can state from personal and client experience that it is not actually that hard. It is certainly no more difficult than managing an organization of Massachusetts' size (approximately 60,000 desktops) with as many as four different versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system and possibly four different versions of Microsoft's Office suite -- each of which has a different file format that is not backward-compatible.

Additionally, any possible difficulties changing away from the Microsoft file formats make the case itself for the immediate change, for this is certainly a 'pay-me-now...' situation. Even Carr, the IT-agnostic author of Does IT Matter? (HBS Press), seems to agree.

State governments, their employees, and citizens should be producing documents in open formats that are easily converted, both ways.

Yates reiterates the FUD about citizens having trouble converting documents.

See above.

Citizens who produce documents in an OpenDocument-ready office suite application, like or StarOffice, do not need to convert their documents because they natively save as OpenDocument files by default.

Statistics of common PC desktop workflow practices reveal that users often do not access a majority of their old documents and, therefore, most legacy documents don't ever need to be converted.

More than 95% of legacy documents are simple, one-page memoranda, notes, correspondences, short reports, or fax documents with minimal formatting. These simple documents convert perfectly and naturally in one click from the several different MS Office formats into the OpenDocument format, once opened in an OpenDocument-ready office suite.

Trouble with document version compatibility is overstated by Microsoft for obvious reasons. It is important to keep in mind that users of MS Office have more difficulty with file format version incompatibilities than users of or StarOffice, since the latter suites open all legacy versions of MS Office documents.

Yates reiterates the FUD about citizens being 'locked-out' of his company's software applications.

Alan Yates, apparently, has not read the Massachusetts Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM) document yet, which unambiguously permits Microsoft to offer an OpenDocument-based software solution.

Yates declares that the OpenDocument decision denies Massachusetts State agencies future technology innovations.

Given Microsoft's notoriously poor record of technical innovation, this statement only sparks derisive laughter across the information technology trade. Any notable innovations -- apart from "Microsoft Bob" or the talking paper clip -- have been in the pure, psychotic aggression of their tactics of trade.

Additionally, if this is an oblique reference to Microsoft's InfoPath product, then it is merely necessary to point to existing alternative implementations of the XML business process tools. Moreover, we expect much business processing innovation to come out of the open source communities in the near future; this renders Yates' assertions ridiculous.

Yates asks Massachusetts to allow its future policies regarding the file format to be more "dynamic."

He says,

Given the vibrant nature of competition in the IT industry and the fast pace under which developments and innovations occur, it is imperative that the ETRM incorporate a process that makes clear how additional formats or standards may be added to the Commonwealth’s "accepted" list as such developments and innovations arise. Otherwise, the ETRM and the process itself will become an inadvertent road block to such positive developments.

This is simply another opportunity to repeat the propaganda about Microsoft's unique ability to innovate. It is more circular nonsense. The way that word is bandied about, you'd think Microsoft officials define 'innovation' as being something of special, elegant, and wonderful design but necessarily created only by Microsoft. It's a comically obnoxious attempt at neuro-linguistic programming.

In fact, Massachusetts' declaration for a truly open file format achieves precisely what Yates demands here. Open standards, like OpenDocument, do move dynamically with the times. They change and incorporate new design ideas and capabilities. However, they do so in the light of public scrutiny under the collaborative auspices of standards bodies like OASIS or W3C. Even though Microsoft is a member of OASIS (and is thus trying to internally influence changes to that body's definitions of "open"), such an open and collaborative standards process seems anathema to them.

To offer a format that is capable of being added to The Commonwealth's "accepted" list, Microsoft must offer OpenDocument.

Yates demands satisfaction with legalistic overtones:

He asserts:

Given the significant due process, cost, competing standards, and other considerations raised above, this is the minimal course the Commonwealth must take [emphasis added] to properly and meaningfully study the potential impact of the unprecedented proposals it is contemplating.

He demands more time for consideration (the customary Microsoft stall tactic), "due process" (this is a legal term, used here conspicuously), and public cost analyses (so Microsoft is afforded the opportunity to cost-match on some contrived basis favorable to itself or demonstrate that the cost of an OpenDocument migration miraculously meets or exceeds the cost of an enterprise Office license renewal). Such thinly-veiled threats of legal action against a customer for exercising discretion in the free market-place should be an embarrassment to Microsoft. The temerity of it is repellent.

Alan Yates' letter reveals the worst of Microsoft's behavior and signals their limited recourse when competition is enabled. The letter betrays many of the company's flaws of character, its propensity to lie, and its petulant entitlement to customer fealty. The confidence behind their language reflects the absence of fear at being caught out, and the sureness that they have rigged the markets in their own favor into perpetuity, as if it were a natural law. Or it reveals something like the fight fixer's eminent surprise at finding out his quarry took the money, but refuses to throw the fight in the third round.

The Yates letter is an historic token of the moment Microsoft lost control of the markets it has dominated for ten years. Open source, having fostered a more open and truer market conversation, makes Microsoft's self-centered messages come off now like dusty old wives' tales, like moldy myths we once believed, or like Stalinist proclamations of unreal realities. The reason Microsoft officials are so ready to prostrate themselves to say embarrassing things, audaciously untrue, is that up until now they were the only ones in on the secret: that Microsoft's market grasp is ephemeral and that it can go away quickly. This is why their tactics look so desperate in the revealing light of today's more educated environment.

Carr even starts off by saying he wasn't paying attention to the OpenDocument debate, even though he resides in Massachusetts:

I assumed it was just another case of anti-Microsoftism, an assumption backed up by the press's "Massachusetts Dumps Office" headlines. I was wrong. This isn't about Microsoft. It's about a state government launching a serious and comprehensive initiative to replace its fragmented, inefficient set of traditional information systems with a modern, coherent, and flexible IT architecture that allows data to be shared and reused easily.

Serious and senior business people have often remarked that they register most of the anti-Microsoft noise in their minds as industrial jealousy, or social extremism. But Carr begins to read the Massachusetts situation correctly as now being about the real improvement of important public systems -- with impact on tangible things like drivers license processing or local first-response and resource coordination for homeland security. He sees now the valid basis in technology behind some of the more cogent anti-Microsoft rantings (this one, hopefully, among them), that anti-Microsoft sentiment is not just something cooked up by the Left. The Massachusetts declaration should give many reasonable people material for a similar conclusion.

Even if the Yates letter contains a threat of legal action, the Commonwealth can embark on its migration to OpenDocument with confidence that it has achieved something notable -- a positive declaration for a truly open document file format standard that plays an important role in the state's long-term migration toward an architecture built around open data standards. Microsoft is not much a part of the decision, unless it should choose to adopt the standard itself and keep the state's business.

The Yates letter should turn out to be a grave mistake for what it reveals about Microsoft's repulsion at collaborative open standards and its unreadiness for unsupervised play in the open standards sandbox. The letter can only accelerate the 49 other states toward the OpenDocument file format, and accelerate the overdue unwinding of the Microsoft Equilibrium.

Sam Hiser helps organizations understand and implement Open Source & Free Software as a consultant with Hiser + Adelstein in New York. He is co-author of Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop (O'Reilly) and contributed the section to the forthcoming new edition of the classic, Running Linux (O'Reilly), by Kalle Dalheimer and others.