Microsoft Exec Weighs In on Massachusetts Flap

Opinion: This dispute won't make the software giant pursue greater format openness, but growing competition from lower-cost alternatives in developing economies might.

As part of the debate that has followed Massachusetts state CIO Peter Quinns edict that all state documents be stored in an "open" format as of January 2007, I posed some questions to Microsoft. Ive also continued to receive reader e-mail, mostly from people who support "open" everything and seem to hate all things Microsoft.

For those just joining us, the Massachusetts CIO wants to move the state to OpenDocument and Adobe PDF as the only approved formats for document storage. I think such a course is fraught with peril and have said so in two columns, one introducing the issue and the other responding to angry e-mail from OpenDocument proponents.

In response to my questions and the columns Ive written, I received this e-mail from Alan Yates, general manager of information worker business strategy at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. Heres what Yates had to say:

"I read your columns with interest, and can imagine that there are strong views from your readers on the Massachusetts proposal to promote the OpenDocument format, both pro and con. I would just like to reinforce with you and your readers Microsofts commitment to both excellent software and to the goals of the Massachusetts CIO proposal.

"We share the proposals goals for data interoperability across government agencies and for assuring proper storage and maintenance of all public records. We agree that standards-based XML should be used for these purposes. We are working with governments all over the world to achieve these high level goals. But we dont believe the proposed mandate for a single document format is the best solution for achieving these goals. Product competition, with open methods for achieving interoperability is likely to do a better job.

"With Office 2003 we took a major step to enable this through XML-centered file formats, with royalty free specs that anyone can download. This approach has been evaluated by the EU as well as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have said (as recently as a month or so ago) that it meets their needs for openness. And that is also feedback we have heard from customers and partners around the world. The new Microsoft Office Open XML formats in the next version of Office, code named Microsoft Office 12, were created using existing industry standards for XML and ZIP data. There should be no barriers for customers, for users, for developers, for competitors or anyone else to use them when they are ready, or any time thereafter.

"So we were a bit surprised to see the Secretary and CIOs sudden change of direction on this with their radical proposal to make the OpenDocument format the exclusive, mandatory document technology for executive agencies.

"Frankly, there is no finished product today that yet supports the new OpenDocument file format, so the question is first a bit premature. Sun, IBM and other companies have collaborated on this, but the core OpenOffice product favored by this proposal has been delayed for most of this year. But for us, the key reason we havent thought about adopting OpenDocument is that its not something were hearing requests for from customers; customers and partners have universally told us that our approach to using W3C standard XML and a royalty free license met their needs for openness. Developers can and are writing conversion tools that enable interoperability with other products, even if, as in the OpenOffice case, they are not converting for all the Office document capabilities.

"If we start seeing broad interest in supporting OpenDocument, could we change our minds? I guess we should never say never. But it is more likely that third-party companies will fill this need if there is interest from customers. The beauty of XML-centric document formats like those we are using with Office "12" is that third parties will be able to do this kind of work much more easily, and we expect there to be a number of interoperability solutions available by the time it launches in the second half of next year.

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"We are working and talking with many customers (including MA agencies) about how Microsoft products can best meet all their needs for public data, public documents and records as their needs change and expand—from traditional documents to e-mail, messaging, pictures, audio, video, voice, database schema, Web pages, and XML information—all mixed together, with needs for tracking, managing, searching, integrating, etc. Its specifically this need for choice and flexibility that led Microsoft to design Office in a way that supports any XML schemas that a customer chooses. As we look to the future, the pace of innovation is unlikely to slow down, so a fixed exclusive choice of one format is unlikely to satisfy organizations for long.

"Thats why we are encouraging Massachusetts to continue with a more open and flexible approach to choosing technology and solving their interoperability and public access goals. They can have their cake and eat it too by approving a variety of technology in use today for documents, along with new products and standards when they are openly and freely accessible."

Ive passed Alans response around a bit, including to some of the readers who sent e-mail, and it appears people will read into whatever they want. Microsoft seems to be opening things up but also seems to be saying that if you want open, develop a schema of your own. Of course, open only exists when enough organizations and users agree on a standard to make it widely available.

Right now, were in the worst of all worlds. We have an open standard, OpenDocument, that isnt likely to be widely supported and a mostly closed format, Microsoft, that today is almost everywhere.

What is most likely to change Microsofts mind and perhaps push the company toward something most people will accept as "open" formats isnt the CIO of Massachusetts but what happens in developing economies where Microsoft will be in tough competition with lower-cost alternatives or if a large number of states or the federal government were to standardize on non-Microsoft applications. Thats not likely to happen tomorrow, but tomorrows Microsoft may not be the apps powerhouse we know today.

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