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Inside story: How Microsoft & Massachusetts played hardball over open standards

E-mails show that the vendor lobbied for hardball legislation over the file format controversy -- and then backed off.

By Carol Sliwa
December 4, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Less than a week after he became CIO of Massachusetts last February, Louis Gutierrez sensed a serious threat to his power — one that was being promoted by a seemingly unlikely source. Within a matter of days, Gutierrez confirmed that Brian Burke, Microsoft Corp.’s government affairs director for the Northeast, had been backing an amendment to an economic stimulus bill that would largely strip the Massachusetts Information Technology Division of its decision-making authority.

Louis Gutierrez
Louis Gutierrez
For Microsoft, the call to arms had sounded several months earlier, when the state’s IT division surprised the company with a controversial decision to adopt the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF, as its standard file format. Even worse, from Microsoft’s perspective, the policy stipulated that new desktop applications acquired by state agencies feature built-in support for ODF, a standard developed and promoted by some of its rivals — most prominently, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The amendment Burke was promoting had the potential to stop the ODF policy dead in its tracks by giving a government task force and the secretary of state’s office approval rights on IT standards and procurement policies. Gutierrez, who resigned last month over a funding dispute that appeared to be unrelated to the ODF controversy, clearly was rankled by Burke’s involvement with the amendment. Yet he made no attempt to shut the door on Microsoft. On the contrary, he did the opposite.

“While Brian will never be welcome in my office, Microsoft, of course, will remain so,” Gutierrez wrote to Alan Yates, a general manager in the company’s information worker product management group, in an e-mail message that detailed what he had learned about Burke’s lobbying.

The message, sent on March 3, is one of more than 300 e-mails and attached documents obtained by Computerworld under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The e-mails provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the hardball tactics used, compromises considered and prickly negotiations that ensued as Gutierrez and Yates each tried to deal with the ramifications of the first-of-its-kind policy calling for state agencies to adopt ODF by Jan. 1, 2007.

The topic of document formats may have an arcane air to it, but it matters deeply to the world’s richest software company. Document formats have played a critical role in helping Microsoft to secure and maintain its dominance of the office-productivity applications market, with more than 400 million users of its Office software worldwide.

“It wasn’t the only reason that people standardized on Microsoft Office, but it was the main reason,” said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

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