Microsoft and Massachusetts continue sparring over file formats.
- By Michael Desmond
- January 01, 2006
Peter Quinn is working at the center of a firestorm. As CIO for the Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, Quinn is responsible for procuring and managing more
than 80,000 client systems across the state. So when he championed a proposal
requiring all applications used in state government to support open standards-based
file formats, the stakes were high.
So high, in fact, that the plan -- which calls for all state agencies
to move to a nonproprietary format over the next year -- has captured
the attention of the IT community and software vendors worldwide. For
Microsoft, which has tens of thousands of copies of Office deployed in
Massachusetts alone, the interest goes much deeper. The movement could
ultimately threaten the company's hold over millions of client PCs.
Will Rodger, director of public policy for the Open Source and Industry
Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says Massachusetts
officials have a simple IT imperative in mind: ensuring access to state
documents decades or even centuries in the future. A set of closed file
formats, such as those employed by Microsoft Office, simply cannot provide
that assurance, he argues.
"It's very easy and completely understandable that a customer --
a large customer like Massachusetts with tens of thousands of employees
-- would want an open standard," Rodger says.
Understandable perhaps, but the move represents a major rules shift for
Microsoft, says Michael Wendy, media relations manager in the public policy
office at CompTIA, an international IT industry trade group based in Chicago.
Wendy contends that the policy overrides market preferences while failing
to guarantee the desired document access.
"We have a problem with the policy. For Microsoft, it's bad,"
says Wendy. "We didn't know 20 years ago that .DOC would be the de
facto document format. We think the marketplace's standards and options
are much more preferable going forward."
In a lengthy letter last fall, Microsoft General Manager Alan Yates urged
Bay State officials to reconsider the plan. Yates argued that Microsoft
supports the state's desire to foster interoperability and improve long-term
records storage, but believes the new policy isn't the best method for
achieving those goals. "The proposed policy is costly and unnecessary
and would limit the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to a desktop software
policy that is less functional, less open, and less flexible than the
Commonwealth's current policy," Yates wrote.
At the center of the battle is the Open Document Format (ODF), a freely
available, standards-based set of file formats that any vendor or customer
can use to create, edit and exchange files. "Microsoft could solve
this very quickly, simply by supporting ODF," says Rodger. "If
they did that tomorrow, the debate would be over. And I think you would
see Microsoft continue to keep a good chunk of the desktops they see now
and the desktops in the future."
Instead, Microsoft has promised to submit its homegrown Office XML Reference
Schema to the Ecma International standards body, and thereafter to the
International Organization of Standardization (ISO). It's a move that
has put Microsoft back in the game, according to a statement released
by Massachusetts state secretary of administration and finance Thomas
"The commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating
an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are
optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable
open formats," Trimarco's statement read.
Even without the late concession, most businesses are likely to stick
with Office, says Ken Takahashi, an analyst with the Radicati Group, a
research and consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. He says open-source
alternatives to Office, such as Open Office or the Linux-based Koffice,
are "still struggling to mimic Office features," and will prove
expensive to adopt.
Takahashi says Microsoft's proprietary formats also boast key features
-- such as digital-rights management support -- that are unmatched by
ODF and Microsoft's own XML-based Office formats. Still, Rodger returns
to the issue of customer control.
"At the end of the day, people need to control their docs,"
he says. "They can't rely on other people to be sure they can read
their laws and documents 100 years from now. We all use 110 volts on our
outlets, the railroads all run on the same tracks. It's just something
Microsoft will have to get used to."
Wendy disagrees. "We think it's a false choice being foisted on
Microsoft and the marketplace by the false policy," he says, adding:
"It's not close to being over yet."
Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.