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What's Microsoft afraid of?

January 31, 2006

When open-standards advocate Peter Quinn resigned as CIO of Massachusetts last month, amid intense and ugly political pressure, it didn't look good for the state's plan to adopt OpenDocument as its file-format standard for Office documents. That plan has been fiercely opposed by Microsoft, which fears the abandonment of the proprietary document formats that have long provided a bulwark against competition for its ubiquitous and highly profitable Office suite.

But it doesn't look like the state is backing down. When Microsoft's national technology officer, Stuart McKee, recently told a reporter that Massachusetts's interim CIO Bethann Pepoli "is crafting an additional policy," implying that the state was backing away from its plan, Pepoli quickly shot back a denial, saying that Massachusetts "is not ‘crafting an additional policy’ in regard to the OpenDocument initiative ... We are proceeding with implementation of the OpenDocument Format standard.”

Yesterday, the administration of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a clear sign of continued support for the OpenDocument policy, announced the appointment of Louis Gutierrez as the state's new CIO. The second sentence of the press release on the appointment states: "Gutierrez will be responsible for overseeing the final stages of implementation of the state's new OpenDocument format proposal, to go into effect in January 2007." The release also notes that Gutierrez:

led the development and implementation of the state's Virtual Gateway, an online portal that integrated the web presence of 16 agencies into a user-friendly format that improved service delivery and reduced costs. "The Virtual Gateway is an example of how state government computing can be transformed through the application of open standards that interoperate with many kinds of technology and vendors," said Gutierrez. "As technology continues to evolve there remain substantial opportunities to transform services and a need to plan for the long-term future of technology-infused operations."

As Andy Updegrove writes, "Clearly, this press release is being used to express the determination of the Romney administration to push through its implementation of ODF. This is doubly significant in a political sense, given that Romney has made no effort to deny that he has forgone running for reelection in favor of nurturing his chances to make a run for the United States presidency. By underlining his commitment to ODF, Romney may be using the ODF issue to draw a line in the sand, thereby demonstrating that he will neither kowtow to special interests (in this case, Microsoft), nor will he 'flip flop' on a policy, once he has committed to it."

This fight, which has many political as well as technological angles, is far from over, but it's nice to see that, so far, the state administration refuses to be bullied. It will be interesting to watch how Microsoft responds to Gutierrez's appointment. At this point, you have to wonder why the company is so intent on stopping the state's experiment with ODF. After all, if the move proves a disaster, as Microsoft claims it will, won't that confirm the superiority of Microsoft's formats and stop other government agencies from following in Massachusetts's footsteps?

Could it be that what Microsoft really fears is that the adoption of ODF won't be a failure but a success?


Microsoft, like most entrenched big business, is more interested and better at blocking progress (that they can't own) and milking current revenue streams than innovating.

It's easier. They can use their leverage to maintain the status quo. This way executives are guaranteed their pay for pulse. They don't lose no matter what.

Posted by: ordaj at January 31, 2006 11:27 AM

Unfortunately, whatever happens with MA, both sides will call it a victory. It is simply too complex a task to objectively judge the effectiveness of this kind of program to declare a winner at the end of the day. I think Microsoft realizes that even if MA goes all ODF and does end up spending more money while getting less done, nobody will switch sides and say that MS was right all along.

When you look at crummy open source alternatives to commercial software, the OSS defenders will argue that they have almost the same functionality, a lower price, and the benefits of source code access, even if the software is horrible.

When you look at crummy proprietary software, the person selling it to you will feed you FUD about not knowing who's developing your software if you were to go for what seems like a superior OSS alternative.

The pros and cons of this debate don't intersect in enough places to make the declaration of a winner a likely event.

Posted by: Anthony Cowley at January 31, 2006 01:08 PM

Right on all counts, Nick.

Microsoft knows the truth, that it's not that hard for an organization to change.

The only thing that has ever explained the bizarre, overweening aggression of Microsoft people it that they know something we don't: that their market position is ephemeral.

Here's a recap of The Commonwealth's situation with ODF from just before the Gutierrez news: "Progress toward openness..." | Financial Times

Posted by: Sam Hiser at January 31, 2006 04:50 PM

Microsoft is scarred of open source projects. It knows that it can't milk $$ if people have a far cheaper choice, that might work similar or better

Posted by: Ram.A at January 31, 2006 06:28 PM

I remember during the MS anti-trust trial, a Microsoft email came out saying: 'Screw Sun, cross-platform will never work."

I remember thinking: if you are so sure it won't work, why are you worrying about it?

Posted by: Fazal Majid at February 1, 2006 01:43 AM

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