Microsoft Trounces OpenDocument Legislation — Six Times

_One of the best ways to stimulate competition, innovation and lower prices is for participants in a market to honor the commons (a shared pool of resources, a minimal set of safety or performance standards) and then to compete “on top” of the commons. Instead of being able to reap easy profits from monopoly control over something everyone needs — say, a computer operating system like Windows — a company must work harder to “add value” in more specialized ways. _

My son, Sam Bollier, has been looking into the drive by some state governments to require their agencies to adopt OpenDocument Format. Here is what he has found:

Microsoft is, by far, the largest software company in the world. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that it was able to effectively quash bills in six different states that would have mandated state governments to store and exchange files in OpenDocument Format (ODF).

OpenDocument Format is, to use the technical jargon, an “open, Extensible Markup Language-based file format.” Its “openness” means that any software vendor is allowed to create a program that implements ODF. Furthermore, OASIS, the international organization that created ODF, charges no royalties for the use of its format.

This makes ODF an ideal file format for governments, who are currently reliant on companies who effectively own a given file format (think Microsoft and the “.doc” format). The dangers of such reliance are clear enough — one should be able to access one’s own files without having to worry that the format in which they’re stored are owned by a single vendor.

Requiring all government office software to be able to store files in ODF opens up the market to other software vendors who are otherwise locked out of the government software market by proprietary file formats. When governments open the door to ODF, you can expect more competition — and with that, better software and lower prices. Indeed, a report by the Danish government estimated they might save $94 million over five years were they to ditch Microsoft’s Office 2007/Open XML for ODF-implementing OpenOffice.

In the past year, six states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, and Texas — considered legislation that would have required state governments to implement, or at least consider implementing, software that would allow the storing of documents in open, XML-based formats such as ODF.

Five of the bills never made it out of committee, and the Minnesota bill was passed only after being seriously weakened. (Instead of being required to implement ODF, the government’s chief information officer now merely has to consider doing so.)

The reason for the utter failure? Microsoft threw its full weight against ODF advocates, to the extent of flying in witnesses from other states and countries to testify against the legislation.

It would be inaccurate to portray the situation as some Manichaean battle between an evil software juggernaut and open-source penguineers. The sponsor of the open formats bill in Texas, Representative Marc Veasey, admitted that his interest in the legislation was piqued after meeting with colleagues who work for IBM. IBM, along with other major software companies, have vested interests in seeing such legislation passed — and in breaking Microsoft’s stranglehold on office file formats.

An equally salient issue is legislators’ confusion over what OpenDocument Format actually is. Don Betzold, a Democratic state senator from Minnesota who sponsored the legislation in his state, admitted that he “wouldn’t know an open document format if it bit me on the butt.” If the co-sponsor of a bill supporting open document formats doesn’t know what ODF is, one can’t expect that the public will know much more.

Given the unfortunate combination of lobbyists’ influence and public unawareness, perhaps the best way to implement ODF at present is through an executive order, which is exactly what Massachusetts did in fall of 2005. The state’s former Chief Information Officer, Peter Quinn, ordered that by 2007 government computers be equipped with software that can save files in OpenDocument Format. Facing heavy pressure from both his fellow officials and the software industry, however, he resigned in 2006. But the executive order remains in place, and Massachusetts remains the only state in which open file formats such as ODF are mandated.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.