Is ODF Headed for a Bill Buckner Moment?

Published July 1, 2006

As reported last month (“The Dangers of Dictating Procurement,” IT&T News, June 2006), the Massachusetts Information Technology Department (ITD), as a matter of policy, will no longer procure software that does not support open standards.

The rule, declared last fall by Peter Quinn, the state’s then-chief information officer, effectively knocks Microsoft out of any future bidding for Massachusetts business, a prospect that has much of the technical elite cheering.

That’s because a major competitor to Microsoft Office is OpenOffice. OpenOffice is open source software that supports an open standard called Open Document Format (ODF). It has been incorporated into software products from Microsoft competitors, such as Sun Microsystems StarOffice.

Last fall, it looked like Microsoft was indeed going down in the Bay State. Today, have a few drinks with an open source geek and he’ll tell you, perhaps not in so many words, that Microsoft’s response to the Massachusetts directive was a clumsy swing resulting in a slow grounder to the right side of the infield–but the ODF team has Bill Buckner at first base.

(Buckner, for readers who’ve forgotten their baseball history, is a former Major League first baseman with an impressive 20-year career, who will nevertheless be most remembered for an error he made that cost his Boston Red Sox Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.)

MS Office vs. OpenOffice

Much of the controversy about the Massachusetts directive centers on the replacement of Microsoft Office with OpenOffice. Unlike Linux, which is a leaner, more elegant operating system than Windows, especially for servers; or Mozilla Firefox, which has had none of the security problems of Internet Explorer, OpenOffice is not nearly as strong or popular as MS Office. MS Office may be expensive, but users like it.

It’s highly debatable whether a state government, which has fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers, should be using its resources and purchasing power to provide Microsoft competitors with the traction they can’t get in the marketplace.

That’s not to say ODF doesn’t have points in its favor. When it came to document creation and storage, the Massachusetts ITD had a legitimate requirement–it wanted to be sure documents created and stored in 2007 were readable by software in 2010, 2020, 2050, and on into the future. Microsoft Office, built on a proprietary format, could not guarantee that. Heck, current versions of MS Office can’t open documents created in early versions.

Massachusetts felt the only way to guarantee future compatibility was to demand vendors conform to an open standard. What’s more, ODF uses Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML), which is much more robust than Microsoft’s binary format in the way it can make applications within the suite work together. Microsoft users will have to wait until the latest release, Office 2007, due out later this year, to get the XML document extensions.

Zealots Carry the Day

Had the ITD focused on its specific user requirements, it would have had a much stronger case. Instead, it allowed the issue to be hijacked by the rabid anti-Microsoft set, who were not shy about turning the directive into a drive to replace Microsoft at any cost, just to see if it could be done in an IT operation the size of Massachusetts’.

This scared lawmakers. Pulling the plug on Microsoft would cost the state millions in the short term for future benefits that were, at best, vague. It also scared taxpayers, most of whom had never heard of ODF, and state employees, who weren’t sure they wanted to give up Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for a product few others use.

Pro-ODF pieces with titles like “OpenOffice is 10 years behind MS Office? That’s Fine” didn’t help ease their concerns.

Microsoft has said the ITD policy is anti-competitive because the rule, in essence, singles out Microsoft alone. Critics dismissed this as whining. Support open standards, they told the software giant, and you’ll be welcome to bid for Massachusetts business. While Microsoft still says it will not support ODF, last November it submitted a rival version, Open XML, to the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) for possible adoption as an open standard. ECMA released a first draft in May.

Tom Trimarco, Massachusetts Secretary of Finance and Administration, has indicated the Microsoft version would be an acceptable alternative, should it be standardized. The resulting reaction from the ODF side amounts to “an open standard is an open standard only when we say it is.”

Although ECMA has existed since 1961 and has developed a number of communications, computer language, and media standards that have been adopted by the International Standards Organization (ISO), it’s not good enough for some.

“Only after a specification has been approved by a broadly supported standards body–one that demonstrates acceptable levels of openness by being available to all competing products–should [Massachusetts] consider including that open standard as one of its own,” Carl Cargill, director of corporate standards at Sun, wrote in a letter to Trimarco.

Andy Updegrove, a more level-headed open source advocate, in blogging on Open XML, pretty much admits that, open standards or not, the goal of the Massachusetts ODF effort isn’t about choosing what’s best for the state–it’s about enforcing a pocket industrial policy.

“While I’m not a programmer, what version 1.3 of XML Open indicates to me is that the specification may be fine (and even perhaps very good) for making it possible for end users and external developers to do more with Office documents, but it may be useless for creating true competition in the marketplace–which presumably is exactly what is intended,” Updegrove writes.

I’m sure Updegrove would disagree, but it’s not the government’s role to handicap competitors. That’s a gross disservice to the citizens who expect their representatives to procure responsibly and fairly, not to engage in adventures in procurement for their own sake.

The Massachusetts directive is a bad idea because it intentionally stacks the deck. This is all the more clear now that Microsoft has moved toward open standards, yet calls continue for its exclusion. The ITD policy appears more arbitrary with each day. While other states, not to mention several countries, are watching to see how Massachusetts fares, there’s noticeable reluctance to follow the state’s lead.

With top state officials hedging and Microsoft shifting toward open standards, the controversy over the ITD directive may be moot by the time it takes effect in January. How things go from here is up to the zealots. They can make this discussion about the merits of ODF, and its long-term value to Massachusetts, or they can continue their wild-eyed crusade against Microsoft. They have a better chance at winning if they take the first approach.

But in Massachusetts, it’s a tradition to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Remember Bill Buckner.

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