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

By Carol Sliwa
December 4, 2006 12:00 PM ET
When Massachusetts committed to its ODF policy, migrating away from Office appeared to be the only way that executive-branch agencies could comply. Microsoft had spurned the state’s requests to engineer ODF support directly into Office, complaining in a 6,425-word document sent to the IT division in November 2005 that the open standard was “nascent and immature.”

The company argued that its new Office Open XML format also merited inclusion in Version 3.5 of the IT division’s Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM), the newly minted open standards blueprint for state agencies. Microsoft even took the rare step of submitting Open XML to the ECMA International standards body in an attempt to show that its format would pass muster as “open.” But to Microsoft’s chagrin, Massachusetts issued only a noncommittal statement of optimism that Open XML would someday meet its standards.

Worldwide Impact

Microsoft’s concerns extended well beyond Massachusetts. Yates told Gutierrez in one e-mail that the state’s mandate carried “a lot of weight” with public policy makers around the world. And he repeatedly complained in his messages to the CIO that Microsoft’s rivals were misrepresenting the state as the “reference case for a mandatory ODF-only policy,” rather than stating its broader goal of embracing open standards in general.

“We think the common external view is that the current policy is etched in stone and [that] Microsoft products and technology are shut out of the Commonwealth unless we agree to neuter our products for awhile,” Yates wrote to Gutierrez in April.

The fact that the ODF policy threatened Microsoft’s business interests wasn’t lost on Eric Kriss, who had paved the way for its adoption while serving as a cabinet secretary under Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In an interview, Kriss said he wasn’t surprised by “the aggressiveness” that Microsoft showed both publicly and privately in pursuing its opposition to the ODF policy.

“I think Microsoft took a good run at trying to change the world as opposed to trying to change [itself],” Kriss said. “And you expect to get the shock and awe when that happens. That’s what we got.”

Kriss, who left his post as secretary of administration and finance shortly after Version 3.5 of the ETRM was issued in September 2005, instigated the open-standards policy based on the belief that public documents shouldn’t be tied to a single vendor’s proprietary document format.

He was no stranger to technology himself. Following a prior stint as the state’s finance secretary, Kriss became CEO of MediQual Systems Inc., a database developer with products based on Microsoft’s FoxPro software. He left MediQual in 1998 to start his own business, Workmode Inc., which uses open-source software to develop Web-based business applications. He makes no secret of his belief that governments eventually will move to open source.

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