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Microsoft trounces pro-ODF forces in state battles over open document formats

Bills fail in five states; Minnesota approves watered-down study legislation

By Eric Lai, Gregg Keizer
June 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

In a resounding victory for Microsoft Corp., bills seeking to mandate the use of open document formats by government agencies have been defeated in five states, and only a much-watered-down version of such legislation was signed into law in a sixth state.

The proposed bills would have required state agencies to use freely available and interoperable file formats, such as the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications, instead of Microsoft Corp.'s proprietary Office formats. The legislation was heavily backed by supporters of ODF such as IBM, which uses the file format in its Notes 8 software, and Sun Microsystems Inc., which sells the ODF-compliant StarOffice desktop application suite.

But a bill introduced in Connecticut earlier this year met a quick death. And in Florida, Texas and Oregon, would-be laws were all killed off within the past month while being debated in legislative committees, following fierce opposition from Microsoft lobbyists and allies of the software vendor.

The most recent defeat occurred last Thursday in California, where a toned-down version of a bill in favor of open formats was declared to be stalled in the state assembly's Committee on Appropriations -- even though the bill's sponsor, Mark Leno, a Democratic assemblyman from San Francisco, chairs the committee.

Microsoft also fought (download YouTube video) that proposal, which was introduced in February.

Leno vowed via e-mail this week that he would again try to pass the bill when the California legislature starts the second half of its two-year session in January. "I will continue the conversation with my colleagues that establishing 'open' file formats remains crucial for our state agencies to preserve unfettered access to government information," he wrote.

The only recent victory for advocates of open formats was a Pyrrhic one. In Minnesota, a bill that would require state agencies to begin using an open, XML-based format by July 2008 was eventually transformed into a call for the state's IT department to study the issue. That language was attached to another bill that has been signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, according to Don Betzold, a Democratic state senator who was the original sponsor of the open formats proposal.

Betzold said he got interested in the topic of ensuring long-term access to state documents after observing the difficulty of accessing old data stored in mainframes and on floppy disks.

Too much technology

But during the ensuing policy debate, Betzold and other politicians quickly felt overwhelmed by the technical jargon presented by each side. "I wouldn't know an open document format if it bit me on the butt," he said. "We're public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job."

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