Hitting a Nerve

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s decision to mandate OpenDocument has incurred the wrath of Microsoft’s hydra, the three-headed beast known as Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Won’t Redmond ever learn that hubris is not a sales strategy?
On September 21 of this year, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s Information Technology Division (ITD) released its long-awaited Enterprise Technical Reference Model, Version 3.5 (ETR), which mandates the use of the Open Document Format or OpenDocument for the storage of all office (text document, spreadsheet, and presentation) files. As the ETR points out:
The OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument)is a standardized, XML- based file format specification suitable for office applications. It covers the features required by text, spreadsheets, charts, and graphical documents. The specification was recently approved by OASIS as an open standard. OASIS has also submitted the standard to ISO for consideration as an international standard for office document formats.[ To see the entire ETR, see http://www.linux-mag.com/redirect/2005-12/docket/.]
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, having given this a lot of thought and time, concluded that it was critical to state government that state records not be retained in a file format that’s controlled by a single vendor. There are a lot of good arguments for this decision, not the least of which is the risk to the state of losing control of or access to their documents.
Through OASIS, a number of competing companies, including IBM, Sun, and Adobe, came together and agreed that they could live with a shared document format, OpenDocument. Moreover, the companies decided that, to the extent any adopter of OpenDocument held patents, such patents would be licensed royalty-free under the standard. Sun has subsequently made an express statement that it is making any patents it holds covering OpenDocument freely available (see http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/office/ipr.php).
Think of it: the Commonwealth’s current vendor of choice, Microsoft, has steadfastly refused to open up their document formats to competing desktop vendors. At the same time, Microsoft has signaled its intention to move away from its current document format schema. Moreover, the Redmond behemoth has also signaled, through “end-of-life announcements”, its intent to force customers to upgrade to Microsoft Vista when it becomes available. Massachusetts, as well as every other Microsoft customer, faces eternal lock-in. To avoid this trap, Massachusetts opted for freedom in the form of OpenDocument.
So why isn’t this a good thing? The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has clearly hit a Microsoft nerve, and the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) machine has been shifted into overdrive.
For example, in a September 28, 2005, op-ed article run on Fox News’s web site (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0, 2933,170724,00.html), writer James Prendergast, the executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, lambasted Massachusetts and called for the Commonwealth to drop its OpenDocument push. Mr. Prendergast presaged many negative results if Massachusetts enforced its OpenDocument plan, including burdening taxpayers with new costs, disrupting how state agencies interact with constituencies, and attacking market-based competition. (Interesting arguments, because one could easily apply them to the very actions Microsoft has taken over the years that have been addressed in so many anti-trust lawsuits against the company.) But then something interesting happened: although the author of the article only identified himself as the executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, those that pursue open information for a living soon identified that association as a front for Microsoft, and FoxNews published a disclosure of the same (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0, 2933,170916,00.html) – the FUD machine at work.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s ITD tried to work with Microsoft, valiantly trying to persuade the company that continuing to use software that stored documents in a proprietary format that other competing applications could not replicate was an unacceptable risk for the state. But when you hold a 94% market share on the desktop, you come to believe everything you do is the de facto standard and all other approaches are wrong.
So let’s talk truth. It’s not healthy for any single vendor to control the desktop. A desktop monopoly permits competitive and pricing abuses. Document formats are only one of the many levers Microsoft has used over the years to strangle competition. Moreover, case after case in federal and state courts have found that Microsoft has engaged in abusive pricing practices. A desktop monopoly is also a security risk. One doesn’t have to wait very long to learn of yet another Office virus, jeopardizing not only the utility of the host computer, but all of the content stored on it.
OpenDocument presents an alternative. There’s nothing sinister in IBM, Sun, and Adobe sharing their intellectual property. There’s no section of U.S. patent law that states inventors must license patents for a fee. The burden on the promoters of OpenDocument was to show that the new file format was at least an acceptable technological alternative, if not an improvement. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, after lengthy study, has accepted that premise.
It’s time that Microsoft and its minions did the same.

Mark Webbink is Deputy General Counsel for Red Hat, Inc.

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