The comment period for the new draft Massachusetts office-file-format policy ended last Friday the 9th. During the week before that date, there was some pretty intense back-room politics going on. There are a ton of industry associations and lobbying groups, including: Mass Software Council, Technet New England, Mass High Tech Council, Mass Network Communications Council, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and AeA. You can bet that every one of them was coming under pressure last week to speak up pro or contra the state’s position. Since you have IBM and Sun on one side of this issue and Microsoft on the other, you can also bet that they were getting pulled both ways. I’m pretty sure that a lot of them ended up with a statement along the lines of “On the subject of the new draft from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we’re in favor of motherhood and apple pie.” But, I got my hands on a copy of the other side’s talking points, and I think they make interesting reading. [Update: I hear unofficially from someone at Adobe corporate that they’re “generally happy with how things went”, so I was wrong, sorry. Fixed.]

Somebody at one of those associations knows somebody who’s on a mailing list with me and thus I got these talking points; I can’t say for sure who wrote them, but I can guess. Let’s give them a look, then walk through point by point.

  • The direction toward interoperability using XML data standards is clearly a good one.

  • However, limiting the document formats to the OpenOffice format is unnecessary, unfair and gives preferential treatment for specific vendor products, and prohibits others.

  • The proposed approach and process for use of XML data is quite open to multiple standards, yet the proposed standard for documents is quite narrow, preferential, and may not enable optimal use of the data-centric standards.

  • The proposed policy would create significant costs and problems for state agencies, for the private sector and for citizens, which have not been evaluated, considered, or factored in.

  • There are practical considerations for conversion of documents in older formats which apparently have not been considered.

  • This policy would prohibit certain innovations and solutions from technology vendors, denying future benefits to MA agencies.

  • There are less costly, less limiting, non-preferential policy options to achieve the same goals.

Bottom line: We feel strongly that this proposed policy is costly and unnecessary and would result in limiting the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to desktop software that is less functional, less open and less flexible than the State of MA already has. We will continue to work with a variety of State officials to help them achieve their various public and organizational goals.

El Presidente, a Hereford Bull

El Presidente

On the Other Hand... · Recently we spent a few days on a farm on Saskatchewan, during which I had occasion to help clean the floor of the barn, one of whose inhabitants was a Hereford bull named “El Presidente”, being boarded for a friend. So, when I assert that these talking points are, by and large, Dung of Male Bovine (DoMB for short), I do so in an educated voice. Let’s take them up one by one.

The direction toward interoperability using XML data standards is clearly a good one.

Well yes, but just standardizing on “XML” is laughably inadequate. XML just labels parts of files; it doesn’t tell you what they mean; by itself, it doesn’t do semantics at all. But interoperability and business value are all about shared semantics; for example, once everyone publishing documents onto the Internet decided to agree to use HTML, the Web revolution was born.

So “standardizing on XML” is useless; the business benefits are in standardizing on an actual individual set of tags and what they mean. For example, in Massachusetts’ case, OpenDocument 1.0.

However, limiting the document formats to the OpenOffice format is unnecessary, unfair and gives preferential treatment for specific vendor products, and prohibits others.

DoMB. Not only is anyone free to implement OpenDocument 1.0 without any legal or licensing issues, anyone is free to join the committee which defines and maintains it. The claim that any product is “prohibited” casts serious doubt on the intelligence and integrity of whoever has the nerve to make it.

The proposed approach and process for use of XML data is quite open to multiple standards, yet the proposed standard for documents is quite narrow, preferential, and may not enable optimal use of the data-centric standards.

The first half of this is pretty well DoMB, anyone who claims that the combination of OpenDocument 1.0 and PDF (what Massachusetts is proposing) is “narrow” clearly hasn’t taken the time to study either of them.

The second part of this, I suppose, is code for “lets you use InfoPath”. They might have a point here, except for I’ve seen outfits like Propylon build the same kind of application using OpenOffice data, and there are all sorts of standard approaches like XForms and so on just coming over the horizon. Abandoning the benefits of standardization to enable the use of a frankly experimental and unproven product from one vendor strikes me as a lousy trade-off.

The proposed policy would create significant costs and problems for state agencies, for the private sector and for citizens, which have not been evaluated, considered, or factored in.

Really? How do they know that Massachusetts hasn’t been evaluating, considering, or factoring in? Seems like a pretty offensive claim, frankly.

But there’s some real meat here. There are significant costs in converting away from a proprietary, vendor-controlled data format, and you can be sure that such vendors take those costs into account when they set their licensing prices. Let’s see, in the year ended June 30, 2005, I see that Microsoft reported 7.915 billion profit on $11.013 billion in revenues for “Information Worker” products (i.e. Office). Yes, proprietary data formats are are a big part of the story behind that remarkable profit margin.

Once the world has converted to a common file format so everyone has to compete on features and quality, this will still be a good business to be in, but nobody will be reporting 72% operating profits, which in this particular case means less money going from Massachusetts to Redmond, year after year, forever.

Put it another way: every so often in coming generations, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is going to change its office software. Assuming they’ve standardized the file format, the cost of changing the software will be just the cost of changing the software. If they haven’t, it’ll also include the cost of changing over all the data.

Unless the cost of conversion right now is awfully damn high, this sounds like a good investment.

There are practical considerations for conversion of documents in older formats which apparently have not been considered.

Once again, whoever wrote this had a lot of nerve accusing Massachusetts of failing to consider obvious issues. Let me tell a little story. A couple of months ago, I bought my Mom a new Macintosh, and also Microsoft Office for the Mac. We transferred her files over from her old Windows computer, but Office wouldn’t open a bunch of them. That was OK, I went and got NeoOffice/J, a free OpenOffice-based software suite, and it opened most of them just fine. This is a story you hear over and over, on the net.

Having said that, there are going to be cases (particularly heavily-engineered Excel spreadsheets), where there will be some pain transferring to the open alternative. But (see previous discussion) there will also be some pay-offs; you take the pain now or you support a 72% profit margin forever.

This policy would prohibit certain innovations and solutions from technology vendors, denying future benefits to MA agencies.

This is particularly gloppy ugly stinky DoMB. The notion that using standardized formats and protocols gets in the way of innovation is twenty-year-old thinking, it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. I remember perfectly well, back in the Eighties, IBM and Wang and Pr1me and DEC explaining why their proprietary networking stacks were much more innovative and better than this new-fangled least-common-denominator “Internetworking” thing, and why their proprietary operating systems were more innovative than Unix. (Hey, most of those companies are out of business, aren’t they?)

These days, anybody trying to sell a one-vendor proprietary networking stack would be laughed out of the market. I am quite certain that in another decade or two, anyone trying to sell a proprietary office-document format will be too. Massachusetts is smart enough to be a little ahead of the game.

There are less costly, less limiting, non-preferential policy options to achieve the same goals.

Well, I have a new car-engine technology to sell that runs on tap-water and accelerates a Ford Expedition 0-60 in 2.7 seconds. You shouldn’t take either my statement or the one before it seriously, because each lacks supporting evidence and flies in the face of common sense.

Bottom line: We feel strongly that this proposed policy is costly and unnecessary and would result in limiting the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to desktop software that is less functional, less open and less flexible than the State of MA already has. We will continue to work with a variety of State officials to help them achieve their various public and organizational goals.

That barn-floor stench threatens to overcome me. In particular, the claim that office technology based on an open, standardized, file format that has already been implemented multiple times is necessarily “less functional, less open, and less flexible” is outrageous. In free-market economies, functionality and flexibility generally arise as a result of competition, not of monopoly control of key standards. As for open-ness, the notion that a proprietary technology unilaterally controlled and licensed by a single vendor can be “more open” than a public soon-to-be-ISO standard is simply, well, that’s what El Presidente produces and what I was pitchforking out last August.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

September 10, 2005
· Technology (77 fragments)
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