As I reported recently, the Massachusetts ITD has announced its intention to add Microsoft's OfficeOpen XML specification (now Ecma 376) to its list of approved "open standards," subject to a very short comment period that will expire on July 20. I have great concern that such a decision may be as influential outside of Massachusetts as was the original decision by the ITD in August of 2005 to include ODF, and exclude OOXML. That first decision raised the credibility and visibility of ODF dramatically, and it is fair to say that all of the later successes of ODF were made possible by that decision.
While the ITD has now announced that it believes that Ecma 376 has met its requirements, it is important to note that two years ago it reversed a similar conclusion as a result of energetic public input. That can happen again, and interim CIO Bethan Pepoli has stated as much in a widely reported quote.
Whether the ITD truly believes that Ecma 376 meets its requirements, or whether it has finally folded to the significant and ongoing pressure to which it has long been subjected cannot be known. But what is clear to me is that if enough people provide carefully considered and persuasive comments to the ITD prior to the expiration of the comment period, the ITD will be given an opportunity and the "cover" to reverse its position if it so wishes.
Preparing such comments is time consuming, but it is also important. I took several hours to do so yesterday, and have just sent them to the ITD. You can to, and I hope that you will. The ITD's comment address is email@example.com, and the deadline is next Friday. If you're a believer in open standards, please don't let that deadline pass without making your thoughts known.
Here are the comments that I sent in:
July 9, 2007
Information Technology Division
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Attention: Beth Ann Pepoli
Re: Public Comment on ETRM Draft 4.0
Dear Ms. Pepoli:
As you know, I have provided frequent commentary on the progress of open document formats in Massachusetts over the past two years, both at my blog
as well as in numerous interviews with the press.
By way of disclosure of conflicts, I have acted as outside legal counsel to OASIS, the developer of ODF, during and before the ITD's consideration of ODF, although I have not been directly involved in the development of ODF itself. More recently, I have become a Board member of, and my firm has become legal counsel to, the Linux Foundation, which supports the main operating system competitor to Microsoft Windows. My firm and I represent numerous other standards and open source organizations, a list of which can be found here
. We also provide legal counsel to hundreds of technology companies and other clients. However, the comments below are rendered solely in my individual capacity as a resident of Massachusetts and as a proponent of open standards, and have not been requested, reviewed or approved by OASIS, the Linux Foundation, my law firm, or by any other clients or other parties.
I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the ITD for the many years of leadership that it has provided in its support of open document formats. Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss and CIO Peter Quinn recognized the great risk to the public interest inherent in a transition from paper to electronic archives based upon proprietary formats, and acted responsively and responsibly to protect the citizens of Massachusetts from the very real possibility that our records and, indeed, our history, could be lost to future generations.
These actions were taken in the face of stiff and ongoing opposition from many quarters, and too often at great personal cost and stress for the ITD's leadership. But as a result of their willingness to blaze a trail forward, profound changes have been wrought. These changes include the raising of global awareness around the importance of open document formats, the opening up of Microsoft's OOXML formats and their contribution to Ecma, and the proliferation of numerous proprietary and open source implementations of ODF.
It is possible that some or all of these results might have occurred someday whether or not the ITD acted as it did. That is a question to which we will never know the answer. But what we do know is that it was the actions of the ITD in September of 2005 that provided the first, vital credibility to ODF that allowed all of these other important things to happen.
And yet the work that the ITD began in 2005 is not finished. The world as it existed then was dominated by a single office productivity suite. And so the world remains today. In such a world, it may be more feasible that legacy documents can be accessed as a result of open document formats, but unless documents implementing those formats can be accessed through multiple competing products, not much will have been gained.
A world dominated by a single office suite has many weaknesses, including lack of price competition, lack of innovation, lack of choice, and increased susceptibility to security breaches, among other concerns. While the contribution of OOXML to Ecma will provide a greater likelihood of being able to access documents created in Office in the future, even that outcome is subject to a number of contingencies. Those contingencies include the following, each of which calls into question whether Ecma 376 can truly be considered to be an "open standard:"
- Will Ecma 376 become a true consensus standard? Like any other vendor, Microsoft will be free to completely implement Ecma 376, or only partially implement it. As the dominant product implementing Ecma 376 as a complete office productivity suite for the indefinite future, there will be little chance that the working group further developing the standard will include any feature that Microsoft does not intend to support, as the utility of such an extension of the standard would likely be nil. As a result, any future evolution of Ecma 376 will be far more influenced by Microsoft than has any prior "open" standard been influenced by any single vendor.
- Will Microsoft continue to contribute all new features it develops to Ecma 376? Like any other vendor, Microsoft will have no obligation to offer future technology to Ecma. But as the dominant office suite provider, any proprietary extensions included by Microsoft in Office will become part of the environment of the "billions and billions of documents" that Microsoft has pledged to protect with OOXML. Past history has shown that the creation of proprietary extensions to standards by Microsoft has often served to weaken, or defeat such standards. If any such extensions are created, then many, and perhaps most, users will conclude that the only "safe" office suite to use will be Office. Again, is any standard truly "open" if its continuing utility is based upon the future product decisions of a single vendor?
- Will there be true choice in the marketplace? At 6,039 pages, it is unlikely that any office suite will be created that fully implements Ecma 376. Not only would the smagnitude of the challenge of developing a full office suite that natively supports OOXML (as compared to merely saving to OOXML through translators, as will be the case with Novell's version of OpenOffice) be daunting, but Microsoft would always have too vast a lead, as well as too much of an advantage in Ecma regarding future features. As a result, the ability to exchange documents with true fidelity between Office and any other product is likely to remain low. Can any specification that is today fully and natively implemented by a single proprietary product be truly considered to be an "open standard?" Is such a standard not instead simply useful for creating conversion tools to be used in connection with a single proprietary product?
- Will there be true innovation in the marketplace? The microscopic level of detail represented by those same 6,039 pages will place a straitjacket on innovation, restricting any implementation to rigid conformance.
- Will there be true competition in the marketplace? For more than a decade, no new effort of significance has been launched to challenge Microsoft's dominance in office productivity software. Since the ITD's decision, however, that marketplace has become energized, with more than a dozen proprietary and open source office suites available, all of which share one characteristic in common – they all implement ODF, and their developers are all relying upon the hope that customers will find value in that fact.
At this point in time, I think it is critically important to ask what the world will look like if Massachusetts decides that OOXML has gone far enough, and if others are as influenced by the ITD's decision today, as they were by its decision in 2005.
As the reservations expressed above suggest, the ITD's sacrifices to date may prove to be all for naught if Ecma 376 is awarded equal status by the ITD as an open standard. Most obviously, if others follow that lead, competition can be expected to once again recede. Absent the likelihood of meaningful sales based upon ODF, where will the incentives come from for small companies (or, indeed large ones) to make the very significant investments needed to challenge an entrenched and powerful incumbent like Microsoft? To paraphrase an activist slogan of the '60's, "what if you gave a standard and nobody came?" In a market that saw no independent value to ODF over OOXML, the result would be well predicted by this rhetorical question from the past.
It is fair to ask whether the consequences of a continuing absence of effective office suite competition would indeed be so dire. The answer to that question can easily be found in the past.
Those consequences include not only a lack of external competition to Microsoft, but a lack of what might be called internal competition as well. As with Internet Explorer, which languished for some seven years without a major upgrade (until Mozilla began to gain in popularity), so also Office has been comparatively slow to evolve. True, Office 2007 includes many worthwhile upgrades and refinements. But the changes made are those that Microsoft has chosen to include, and not necessarily those that have been demanded by the marketplace, or which might serve the end user best, or which the end user might want the most. At the same time, it is also true that Microsoft can and very frequently has been a diligent and skillful innovator. But there is a great difference between innovating in one's best interests to persuade existing customers to upgrade, and innovating to gain and keep customers in response to pervasive and motivated competition. That can only come from the existence of multiple, viable, aggressively marketed, alternative products.
In making these points I must stress that Microsoft is not a "bad" company. Microsoft has transformed the industry in many and important ways, and builds fine products that serve hundreds of millions of customers very well. But its most skillful innovation has occurred, and been motivated, by competition.
It is important to remember that Microsoft is a commercial entity. As it has frequently observed, it is beholden to its stockholders, and obligated to create the maximum value for its owners through all legitimate means. Such is the case with the proponents of ODF as well, including (for example) IBM and Sun. None of these companies is primarily motivated by a desire to do what is best for the public at large, as compared to their stockholders.
That is where governments can play a vital role. Not by regulation, but through the exercise of their procurement powers. Governments have for many years provided money for basic research, and more recently have sought to ameliorate historical inequities through favoring minority and women-owned businesses through selective contracting. So also can governments protect the best interests of all members of society by bringing a "long view" to the marketplace, and by supporting truly open standards that will lead to a truly competitive environment.
True open standards accomplish many healthy and important goals. They protect end-users from lock in, promote competition in price and features, and encourage a healthy balance between agreement upon a common layer of standardization and the ability of competitors to innovate on features. True standards, as a result, are created among many competitors that together agree upon a common base upon which they may compete, with each benefiting from the larger market that is enabled by their development of the standard in question. It is simply impossible to create a similar result where a standard is based upon a single product. I believe that it is wrong for the ITD to conclude that a specification that helps to perpetuate the dominance of a single product can be properly called a true open standard, and not in the best interests of the citizens of Massachusetts for such a specification to be granted the status of an open standard under the ETRM.
It is also important to the future of open document formats in the wider world as well. The impact of Massachusetts in rectifying the historical situation has already been profound. But it has not been sufficient. Earlier this decade, Microsoft properly looked out for its stockholders' best interests by declining to participate in the OASIS working group that created ODF, thereby increasing the likelihood that ODF would die, and increasing the likelihood that its dominance would continue. That decision was not, of course, the best decision for end-users, including government purchasers, because it perpetuated a situation where long-term access to important documents was in the control of a single vendor.
But ODF did not die. Instead, it was completed, although it received little attention, either publicly or among potential implementers. Only with the announcement of the ITD's decision and the realization that a market for ODF-compliant products might develop did interest broaden and deepen. Microsoft is hardly to be blamed for lending no support to the success of ODF. But neither should it be rewarded for launching a competing, self-serving standard as a next-best defense against erosion of its dominant position.
This point was forcefully brought home only a few days before the ITD's announcement of its draft of ETRM 4.0, when Ecma announced that it had chartered a new working group
, this time to "produce a formal standard for an XML-based electronic paper format and XML-based page description language which is consistent with existing implementations of the format called the XML Paper Specification (XPS)." XPS, of course, is a currently proprietary format created by Microsoft to challenge Adobe's PDF, another standard, like ODF, that has already been adopted by ISO, and already been approved by the ITD.
This time, there are no "billions and billions of existing documents" already created in this format that cry out for their own custom standard to protect them. And yet one can only assume that this specification, like OOXML before it, will be offered to ISO as well. That assumption raises many questions that are as obvious as they are troubling. Will there be any benefit to any stakeholder - other than Microsoft - if such an effort is successful? Is it purely a coincidence that the Ecma announcement so closely coincides with the ITD's decision? And finally, is this the type of behavior by vendors that the ITD wishes to encourage?
As one who has long studied and promoted the importance of open standards, I urge the ITD to hold the marketplace to a higher standard, and to refuse to include Ecma 376 on its approved list. In the future, if Ecma 376 and ODF are merged, the resulting standard would truly merit inclusion. And if the ITD can lead the industry towards achieving this result, the citizens of Massachusetts, and, no less, the citizens of the world, will have been well served by our public servants indeed.
Very truly yours,