The Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD), the state agency that effectively launched the voyage of ODF around the world in August of 2005, has released a new version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model. And this new draft includes Microsoft's OOXML formats as an acceptable "open format." The new draft was posted today here, and the very brief comment period will end on July 20. The header to the announcement at the ITD Web site reads as follows:
A review draft of ETRM v. 4.0 is available for review and comment from July 2nd through July 20th, 2007. Comments should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. This major release of the ETRM updates content published in version 3.6, introduces the new Management Domain, enhances the ETRM's format for accessibility and usability as well as provides additions and updates to existing language and technical specifications. For a detailed outline of major revisions made in this version please consult the Major Revisions for ETRM v.4.0 document.
The announcement is not a surprise to me, as I've been following the progress of the ITD's internal reviews over the past six months. I've not been commenting on this publicly in order to try to give Bethann Pepoli (once again the interim CTO, since the departure of Louis Gutierrez) and her team the space to do their internal evaluations with less pressure than Peter Quinn experienced the first time around. However, and as you can imagine, the ITD has been under as much pressure behind the scenes (and perhaps more) as the legislators of those states that have recently tried, and failed, to pass laws that would mandate open formats in government.
The OOXML-related changes to the text of the ETRM are deceptively insignificant. By my word search, there are only three references: the inclusion of the name of the standard in the introductory summary of changes, a brief description and migration section in the Domain: Information part of the draft (scroll down and look for the "Open Formats" section), and the listing of Ecma among the other standards bodies on a list of "Relevant Standards Organizations." But the potential impact of these change if retained will be great.
How much pressure has the Massachusetts ITD been under to accept Ecma 376? I've been told by those in the know that the contacts reached all the way to Deval Patrick, our new governor. Here, as in the states where legislation was introduced, the point was forcefully and repeatedly made that Microsoft is the kind of company that can provide jobs and other economic support where and as it pleases. And, to be fair, the same points were been made in the past by representatives of IBM and Sun when they have spoke out in favor of ODF.
Now we are looking at a very short comment period, commenced with no advance warning, spanning a holiday, and contained within one of the busiest vacation months of the year (one can't help wondering why). Be that as it may, this short comment period will pass very swiftly, and the question you should ask yourself is this: now that the Microsoft formats have been adopted by Ecma and are under consideration by ISO/IEC JTC1, should they in fact be given equal status by the ITD?
This question has a number of dimensions. Superficially, the answer could be "yes," because even as Ecma 376, OOXML will have achieved rough parity with ODF, which had only been adopted as an OASIS standard at the time it was included in ETRM 3.6. It requires weighing more subjective details to differentiate further, such as whether Ecma is as "open" as OASIS, and whether it should matter whether a standard with (still) a single implementation (Office, although it has been announced that a few additional products, such as Novell's version of OpenOffice, will save to OOXML) should be granted the same status as another (ODF) with more than a dozen outright adopters today.
And then there is the question of whether governments, and especially their unelected IT divisions, should implement social policy through procurement. If the answer is no, then perhaps the ETRM should include Ecma 376, because arguably the purely technical requirements of the ITD have been met
My personal belief is that governments should incentivize the development of appropriately open standards through the exercise of their vast procurement power, just as they assist minority and women owned businesses through the same mechanism, and just as they provide funding for pure research and development that might not otherwise be undertaken.
But I also believe that the legislature would be the more appropriate venue for action, if only because leaving civil servants to withstand the full brunt of powerful corporations and vested interests is not only unlikely to lead to good results, but unfair to those (like Peter Quinn, Louis Gutierrez, and Bethann Pepoli) that will be trapped in the cross hairs of vast multinational companies otherwise.
Where does this leave proponents of ODF now? Clearly, if Ecma 376 achieves equal status with ODF in Massachusetts, it will be a cause of great disappointment. One can assume that privately, if not publicly, ODF opponents will have a field day one-on-one with other government purchasers, and will declare the open format battle over. Indeed, earlier this year Microsoft did just that, calling a unilateral truce and announcing that there had been "two winners".
If that were true, then the ITD's decision could be considered a cause for celebration. After all, two years ago Microsoft's formats were closed, and now they have been adopted by Ecma, and perhaps may soon be adopted by ISO/IEC as well. Bringing Microsoft to this point is, from that perspective, a victory indeed..
But this would likely be a Pryrrhic victory at best. Office still commands a huge lead in the marketplace, and its ability to outspend the new entrants (many open source) into the office productivity suite marketplace will be enormous. If no one is buying ODF-compliant products, no one will develop them. And if no one is developing them, no one will be competing with Microsoft. And if no one is competing with Microsoft, then no one will care whether Microsoft contributes new features to Ecma or maintains them as proprietary extensions of Ecma 376, or whether it fully implements Ecma 376 - or whether, in fact, it continues to support Ecma 376 at all. And then we will be right back where we started - dependent upon a single vendor, and with the accessibility of our documents, and indeed the history of our civilization, at risk.
For those of you that think that more is at stake than just technical specifications, I believe that the best way to make your feelings known (whatever they may be) is not to put great pressure on the ITD, although your comments should certainly be sent in that direction.
Instead, it seems more important and fair to me for Massachusetts voters, as well as uninvolved experts from beyond the Commonwealth's borders, to let the new administration and the Massachusetts legislature know what you think should be done. We've had enough examples already of civil servants being trapped between warring forces. We owe it to them to put the pressure on their elected employers instead, to create a zone of safety within which our unelected civil servants can do the right thing.