The Transitive Property of Dots: What Price Massachusetts?

A week ago, I wrote an entry called ODF, MS and Mass:  Now you see the dots (and now you don't).  Today I'll look at some more dots, both clearly visible and obscure, and see how many I can identify and connect.

While a quarter-page ad on the editorial page of the Boston Globe costs far less than a $30 million in-kind software donation to Bay State schools and universities, it's a good bet that the ad titled "Working Together Better by Design" that appeared in yesterday's Globe has something to do with last week's generous contribution.  Since the ad urges the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) to adopt Microsoft's Open XML format, then by the transitive property of mathematics (which, as you will recall from middle school, teaches that "if a = b, and b = c, then a = c"), there's a connection between that $30 million donation and the ODF policy of the ITD.

Certainly there's nothing subtle about the goal of yesterday's ad, which concludes: 

The promise of interoperability is a vision we share with officials of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  We look forward to the commonwealth's consideration of Open, XML-based format standards as one path toward bridging technical and organizational boundaries and advancing the capabilities of the state's information assets now and in the future.  We are committed to working with all of our customers to realize the full potential of information easily exchanged. 

The text of the rest of the ad tracks the currently displaying essay at  That essay incorporates many of the corporate talking points that I have noted before, and focuses on the high value of interoperability - and particularly of achieving interoperability "by design," from the beginning of the design cycle.  It also notes the recent formation by Microsoft of an Interoperability Customer Executive Council, the importance that Open XML will play in achieving interoperability by design, and Microsoft's submission of Open XML to Ecma.

What have all of Microsoft’s efforts to influence Massachusetts on the topic of document formats cost to date?  By way of a quick categorical accounting, in addition to this and prior ads and the recently announced donation, there has been a great deal of lobbying of unknown cost. 

Since expenditures to date must exceed potential MS Office licensing revenues from the Bay State for some time to come, the importance of achieving adoption under the ITD’s Enterprise Technical Reference Model on a parity with ODF must seem high indeed to Steve Ballmer.  Presumably that value is to neutralize the forward momentum of ODF before it picks up too much steam and credibility in other states and foreign capitals.

All of this makes one wonder what the near-term goal of all of this current effort and expenditure may be.  Is it still to somehow prevent ODF from being deployed in Massachusetts, or simply to gain co-equal status for Open XML as quickly as possible?

If the latter, Ecma cannot be expected to complete its work on Open XML until the end of the year or later.  In order to achieve co-equal ISO adoption status with ODF, Microsoft would then have to wait out the preparatory work needed to perpare Open XML for the adoption vote, as well as the six-month ISO balloting period itself.  Only when this is completed, some time in late 2007, would Open XML and ISO be on the same formal approval footing.

So why spend so much money now?  Is this current expenditure part of an effort to gain an early endorsement of Open XML by Massachusetts, based solely on its submission to Ecma? 

Or is the goal more broad, such as working to achieve a more favorable legislature after the election in November?  Or perhaps Microsoft plans to endorse one of the current gubernatorial candidates in hopes of achieving a policy reversal when Mitt Romney moves on?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I think that there are two broad possibilities.  The first is that there is a detailed plan, that each of Microsoft’s recent actions is carefully calculated to advance that plan, and that at some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, the specific objective that is the target of these efforts will become clear.

The second is simply that there is a team inside Microsoft that has been assigned to “the Massachusetts problem” (that much must certainly be true) that wants its superiors to know that its working hard to win the war, and needs to demonstrate that it’s keeping the pressure on.  Under this scenario, the current events aren’t directed at any specific near-term tactical objective (the war-time equivalent of taking a bridge), but rather to simply try to keep the enemy off balance at all times (as with the nightly barrages and periodic probing for points of weakness in trench warfare).

All things considered, based on who’s currently holding the high ground and where each side has their forces deployed, I’m betting on the latter scenario.  We’ll see.

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Comments (3)

  1. did you have any further contact with the ombudsman at the Globe?

    • No, and I’ve given up on prodding him.  I think that, sadly, the word “ombudsman” means more at some papers than others.

      –  Andy

  2. MA is a very high-profile test case. A lot of people are hanging on every word that gets said by either side, no matter how vacuous. My guess is that MS a) doesn’t want to look like they’ve conceded anything and b) wants to take advantage of all the eyeballs to repeat their oh-so-reasonable and interoperable spin anywhere and everywhere they can.
    As far as the standards process, everybody knows ECMA is just a formal rubber stamp; there won’t be any substantive changes and MS can believably promise to make whatever small changes may come up, so for behind-the-scenes negotiations, MS can claim to adhere to the standard already, or as good as. “Standardize on Office 12 now and when the standard is finished, you’ll be way ahead of the curve.” A lot of management drones are going to swallow that.
    Yeesh, someday I could become cynical.

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