I wouldn't know an open document format if it bit me on the butt. We're public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job - Minnesota democrat Don Betzold
The Medium is the Message - Marshall McLuhan
I am overdue in offering a few thoughts on the news that open format legislation has gone down in flames in legislatures throughout the US (I've been getting the latest issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin out, and helping prepare for the very over-subscribed Linux Collaboration Summit. Eric Lai and Gregg Keizer compiled the grim data in a story they posted at ComputerWorld last week titled Microsoft trounces pro-ODF forces in state battles over open document formats. The story varied slightly from state to state, with an amendment to a bill in Florida being whisked away at the behest of three "Men in Black" almost as soon as it was offered, while in Texas, testimony was given (unsuccessfully) by IBM's Bob Sutor, among others, before that bill died. Bills also failed in Connecticut and Oregon, while in California State Assemblyman Mark Leno's bill stalled (the ComputerWorld story reports that Leno will try again in January). Only in Minnesota did a bill pass that mentioned open document formats. But by the time the bill was signed, it had been watered down to the point of only requiring the State's IT department to "study" the open format issue. A bill targeted at a similar result was filed in New York last week.
What are we to make of this? Several things, I think, and none of them reflect very well on the legislators involved.
But the statement by Betzold (and the reticence displayed by other legislators) indicates that many may not really understand what this is all about. As Marshall McLuhan famously observed in a different setting, "The Medium is the Message." Here requiring the use of open formats is public policy. How those documents are defined is a matter of detail, for which expert advice can be sought, and readily obtained.
Does it matter if those in elected office claim that they are not competent to address the bills that are brought before them by their fellow representatives, and to make the hard calls? The answer is yes for three reasons. First, it is their job to protect the public record.
And second, in a situation like this, it is a cop out for legislatures to claim that they should defer to their IT departments to make decisions on open formats. You don't have to have that good a memory to recall why these bills were introduced in the first place: not because state IT departments aren't a good place to make such decisions, but because successive State CIOs in Massachusetts had been so roughly handled in trying to make these very decisions that no state CIO in his or her right mind was likely to volunteer to be the next sacrificial victim.
As both Peter Quinn and Louis Gutierrez both found out, trying to make responsible standards-related decisions where huge sums of vendor revenues are at stake is scarcely a career-enhancing pastime. CIOs should be entitled to stay out of harm's way, and try their best to serve the public's interests the best they can. Where that can't be done, legislatures should protect them, and keep them safe from the types of unwarranted threats and attacks that Carol Sliwa reported on in a series of public-records request-based stories at ComputerWorld last December.
The third reason why legislatures should intervene is because they can modify commercial behavior. Taking the most cynical view possible (often the safest choice, when speaking of politics and commerce), ODF has gotten as far as it can because companies other than Microsoft saw advantages for themselves in uniting behind it. The action of the Massachusetts Information Technology Division brought the issue into the limelight, and attracted global attention. Microsoft opened its OfficeOpen XML formats in competitive response, in order to confront the challenge of ODF-compliant products, and to meet the requirements of its government customers. It submitted the OOXML format to Ecma, and it is now before ISO. However one feels about whether ISO should, or should not, approve OOXML, that is still a very long way from the status quo ante, when OOXML was wholly proprietary. The courage of Peter Quinn and his team was instrumental in getting us to where we are today.
So I'm disappointed. And not just on behalf of open documents, but on behalf of the CIOs of this country, who are now caught between a rock and a hard place, without a paddle to defend themselves with if they won't to do anything new, innovative and necessary, if a major vendor's ox might be gored in consequence.