Microsoft Wins, Open Standards Lose

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-12-28

Microsoft Wins, Open Standards Lose

Some people, bless their hearts, think that what determines which technology is bought and deployed in business and government depends on technical quality. You might call it the "let the best program win" crew.

Some people know better.

Some of us know that technology purchasing has a lot more to do with office politics, old boy networks and friends of friends. Sometimes, those battles get ugly enough that they force out good people. These are frequently people whose only sin was to want to do the right thing of buying the best technology for the best price.

Welcome to the story of Peter Quinn, the soon-to-be former CIO of Massachusetts.

His mistake? He stood up for ODF (OpenDocument Format), an open standard for office documents, and decided that Massachusetts would adopt ODF for use by the Commonwealths executive agencies.

Microsoft, which had been invited to help create ODF, but turned it down, immediately attacked this decision. After all, even were Microsoft to turn around and support ODF, the company might still face serious competition for its gold mine Microsoft Office product line in years.

At first, the attack didnt go much of anywhere.

After all, how can anyone take Alan Yates, Microsofts general manager of Information Worker Strategy, seriously when he says that the adoption of a single format for office documents throughout all state agencies would require deploying a single office application technology?

What was he talking about!?

Microsoft doesnt want Office deployed in every office in the land? Thats not the Microsoft I know.

Besides, ODF is open, Microsoft can use it, Corel can use it, Joe Blow with a C compiler and a lot of time on his hands can use it.

Microsofts efforts didnt amount to much. Worse still, from Microsofts point of view, people were pointing out that products that did support ODF, like 2.0 and StarOffice 8, were worth considering over Microsoft Office.

For the first time in the 21st century, Office had competition.

Microsoft doesnt believe in competition. Microsoft believes in winning. Period.

So, suddenly, a technology decision became a political decision. Secretary of State William Galvin suddenly decided that he had grave concerns about switching to ODF.

State Senator Marc Pacheco scheduled a hearing before the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, after expressing concern about whether the proposal violates state policies surrounding IT procurement.

My word, the very idea of giving people a choice of office suites! We cant have that, can we?

If you were a CIO, and your "colleagues" and erstwhile bosses were saying things like this, youd probably be a little annoyed. But it didnt stop there.

It didnt stop in the halls of government at all.

Next Page: Politics or coincidence?

Politics or Coincidence

The Boston Globe decided to publish a Page 1 story about how Quinn was being investigated, because of the Globes own probes, for unauthorized trips.

Several weeks later, the Globe reported, in the local pages, that Quinn had not violated "conflict-of-interest standards or other rules when he took 12 out-of-state trips to attend conferences."

Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston law firm, and the editor of, wondered about the timing of the Globes reporting, which was "concurrent with moves by Senator Pacheco and others in State Government to curtail Quinns ability to set rules for proper management of the [states] IT needs."

Coincidence? Maybe.

Heres what I know.

The first time someone in authority in a state government decides to support a format that Microsoft doesnt approve, hes suddenly hounded not only within the government but in the press as well.

So, Quinn resigned.

In a memo to his staffers dated Dec. 24, he wrote, "Many of these events have been very disruptive and harmful to my personal well-being, my family and many of my closest friends. This is a burden I will no longer carry."

Whod want to?

You dont sign up to be a CIO to be in the spotlight of a nasty, public debate. You sign up to make the best technology decisions you can for your organization.

It may be a happy day in Redmond, Wash., but its a sad day for Massachusetts and anywhere else where people think that IT dollars should be spent on the best technology for the job, no matter who makes or supports it.

Good-bye, Mr. Quinn, thank you for trying to do the right thing. I wish there were more like you. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

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