Debate Continues on MA’s ODF Mandate

Published May 23, 2006

While he’s clearly agitated enough to post two responses to one of my recent comments, D.C. Parris, editor-in-chief of, fails to answer my central point that it’s bad policy to mandate open source procurement to the exclusion of all else.

As I write in The Dangers of Dictating Procurement, Massachusetts has done exactly that. A directive from Peter J. Quinn, the state’s since-departed chief information officer, mandates use of the Open Document Format (ODF), an open source software alternative to Microsoft Office, for electronic document storage.

Beginning in 2007, use of file formats such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will be prohibited in state departments and agencies.

Despite calling most of my observations incorrect (I will cede that I overreached when I said open source was in the public domain, and I’ve corrected it), in his post of May 20, Parris concedes my conclusion is correct:

“The key procurement choice is whether the state’s IT organization will commit to a long-term product path with companies like Microsoft, or a long-term consulting path with companies like IBM. Both paths carry inherent costs, which may differ from department to department.”

The problem is that this is not how the choice is being presented to the people of Massachusetts. The debate is being oversimplified as: Microsoft: Expensive; Open Source: Free.

And it’s an oversimplification that open source advocates, in their zeal, are guilty of propagating. When it comes to addressing the costs of managing open source software across IT platforms, even Parris tries to sidestep the subject by writing, “The whole ‘FOSS is not free’ argument is so old and hashed over, it’s not really funny.” That’s the easiest way to answer a contention you can’t deny.

Parris follows this up with the more risible “anyone with the most basic understanding of the Free Software Movement would know that it has never been about money.” That may be true for some open source programmers, but it’s not the impression I get when I read the IBM or Sun annual reports. These companies expect big-time revenues from the open source implementations like Massachusetts wants to attempt.

Now in his second post, May 22, Parris takes me to task for “re-framing” the open source debate to make it about competition between IBM and Microsoft, as if I were indulging in rhetorical gamesmanship. I don’t think you can divorce the Massachusetts directive from its commercial consequences. The policy, and any others like it that follow, will be a boon to IBM, Sun, and any company that’s made IT consulting services a cornerstone of its business strategy.

A software procurement decision is matter of a dollars and cents. Zealots like Parris may carry perceptions of the moral superiority of open source over proprietary (“it’s never been about money” is the dead giveaway here), but when a state assigns the power of dogma to what is, bottom line, a vendor’s business strategy, it does an immense disservice to its citizens.

Finally Parris evades completely the big elephant in the room–that the adoption rate of ODF is dismal. Hence, the policy’s blushing hedge to allow use of the popular (and MS-supported) Portable Document Format (PDF) as a substitute. That will let the 99.9 percent of users without ODF software download documents from the state’s Web sites.

You can make a better case for forcing the use of Firefox, the open source alternative to Microsoft Explorer. But then again, when the market provides an alternative that truly offers measurable value, like Firefox does, you don’t need a law or directive to force its adoption. Users gravitate toward it.

Parris instead spends a great deal of space speculating about my affinity for Orson Welles (for the record, I never tire of watching Citizen Kane) and denouncing Microsoft marketing and technology strategies–opinions he’s certainly entitled to.

However you may feel about Microsoft, the Massachusetts directive comes across as an attempt by a group of companies, namely the members of ODF Forum, to use state government power to spur distribution of a failing product in which they have a commercial interest in promoting. If ODF has value, let it compete without a handicap.

Nowhere does Parris say how much Massachusetts is going to save, or gain in economic value, from this open source policy–which is my big question. “It’s not about money” is not an acceptable answer. Taxpayers and conscientious representatives have a right to know the cost. From all signs I think this directive will cost at least as much, and probably more, than a policy that allows state IT administrators to consider all alternatives, including the use of Microsoft software.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.