The MA XML/ODF Open Forum Meeting: Shh! Did You Hear That? Something Happened

There was a lot of talking in the Massachusetts Senate Reading Room yesterday at the ODF/XML Open Format. And even some news

It’s now the day after the Open Format Open Forum was held in the Reading Room of the Massachusetts Senate, and all of the articles have been posted by those who were (and weren’t) there. But what is the consensus of the Noosphere on what happened, and on what will happen next?

We all know that what is actually said in a meeting, as compared to the consensus that emerges from the collective, barbaric yawp of the commentators (like me), is never congruent. Over the course of 2 ½ hours, copious notes get taken that must then be digested into a mere 600 words that must convey not only the key facts, but develop a story line as well in order to hold the interest of busy, on-line visitors through a full one or two minutes of speed reading.

What congeals 24, or at most 48, hours after the fact is therefore usually a single, increasingly sharp (and less accurate) approximation of what really transpired. Or, if there is controversy, then two images (“our” story and “their” story) coalesce, each of which is, due to the controversy, that much more stridently supported, and inevitably that much more divergent from the truth than if there were but one consensus interpretation. Years later, historians may go back and “reinterpret” history, supplying yet a third version that may, or may not, more closely approximate reality.

Immediately after the Forum, most of the reporters I bumped into were scratching their heads and wondering what, if any news, had actually emerged during the open meeting. Many accounts were written, most of which included more of a summary of the story up to now than what was said at the meeting, or turned the words of one speaker or another against them to prove their false intentions.

My intention today was to sample the numerous stories that were added to the XML/ODF story stack today. But after reading them all, I’m not sure that the effort would be sufficiently rewarding to the reader to warrant the effort on either side of the equation.

So instead, here’s what the piece of the elephant I’m holding feels like. I’ll focus on just a single point that I think came out of the meeting, and which I think actually constitutes news.

That point is this: I think that Microsoft has made a strategic decision that it will be sufficient for its XML Reference Schema to be blessed by Massachusetts — as compared to pressing for a final decision that would *include* its Schema while *excluding* ODF – a significant development in that in September it appeared to me that the goal was to block ODF from adoption at all.

As evidence for this conclusion, I would point to the introductory remarks of Alan Yates, Microsoft’s General Manager of Information Worker Business Strategy, and the spokesperson for Microsoft for many months on all things ODF. You can read Alan’s remarks at Pamela Jones’ Groklaw site, as transcribed by jtiner from the full podcast recorded by Dan Bricklin, and available at his site. Note the following out takes:

What I’m really going to be talking about is Massachusetts actually opening up to more choice and more competition than the current policy has. That’s, I think that’s the fundamental decision that’s before us. Can Massachusetts open up to more choice, additional standards, in order to enable greater value over a period of time? And by doing that, by enabling more choice over a period of time, you avoid the industry warfare that tends to jerk governments around from one month to the next month, to one debate to the next debate to the next debate….

So, with that, I would just like to summarize by saying Microsoft has never argued, you know, really, against the OpenDocument format in any way, shape or form. Microsoft is really concerned about Massachusetts opening up to more choice, more competition. Competition between standards, we believe, is a very good thing in this rapidly evolving area of technology and by doing so, Massachusetts will, in fact, be a leader around the world in spurring this new level of innovation that’s possible around documents.

Passing for the moment on the interesting comment that Microsoft “has never argued” against ODF in any way (on that contention, see the answer to the third question of the FAQ posted by Microsoft at its Website on December 13) or for the moment remarking on the use of the past tense, it is good news if Microsoft has really decided not to work against ODF adoption (in private as well as in public) in Massachusetts.

Am I right? I don’t know for sure, but it’s significant to me that Alan Yates, who has (in my observation) been incredibly good at staying on message would have purposefully and firmly have stated this in his introductory remarks.

I think that this is very good for two reasons. First, if Microsoft does not intend to fight the adoption by Massachusetts of ODF, then CIOs in other states will be emboldened to follow the lead of Peter Quinn. And second, if the manifest destiny of ODF can in fact gather steam, then, as a result, Microsoft must follow through on its pledge to open up Office. As long as ODF is in the race, then Microsoft must keep its promises, and ODF thus becomes a stalking horse for increased openness on the part of Microsoft. As long as there are credibly two alternatives in the marketplace, there is an incentive for other vendors to push ODF as hard as they can, which in turn puts that much more pressure on Microsoft not to backslide.

So was there news made in the formal, high-ceilinged Reading Room of the Massachusetts Senate yesterday? I think that there was. One just had to listen carefully to hear it.

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