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

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

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."

Microsoft didn't respond to requests for comment about the legislative results in the various states. But one of its close allies said they showed the unpopularity of technical mandates.

"The media stories you were reading [about the introduction of the bills] made it sound like there was some sort of revolution on the ODF front," said Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice in Washington. "But in each case, they were completely killed, stalled indefinitely or, in the case of Minnesota, turned from an outright mandate into a study bill."

Wyne's group is the lobbying arm of the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, which worked closely with Microsoft to fight the pro-ODF legislation.

Despite the string of defeats, Marino Marcich, executive director of the Washington-based ODF Alliance, said the legislative fight has only begun.

"We had more bills than we ever anticipated," Marcich said. "In three years, we expect open document formats to be a requirement by most states, whether that arrives via legislation or by executive policy decision."

Massachusetts stands alone

National governments in countries such as Norway, Belgium, Denmark and France are all testing or have approved moves to open file formats. But in the U.S., the only state that currently has a policy requiring the use of open formats is Massachusetts. Its policy was developed by state executive branch officials and adopted in late 2005, via an order issued by then-CIO J. Peter Quinn.

Even in Massachusetts, though, technical and political realities have limited the impact of the open formats policy.

Microsoft lobbied heavily against the policy in the state legislature, and advocates for people with disabilities complained that ODF-compliant applications don't work with screen readers and other tools used by the blind as well as Office does. Last year, Massachusetts officials said the state planned to adopt plug-in software that would let its Office users create and save files in ODF, enabling agencies to continue using the Microsoft applications.

Microsoft has fought the various state bills even though the company is putting forward Office Open XML -- the file format used in its new Office 2007 software -- as an open standard in its own right.

The software vendor's hardball lobbying tactics also played a part in the outcome of the debate over the open formats bill that was proposed in Minnesota, Betzold said. But he added that neither side was innocent. "IBM had their own interest, and Microsoft had their own interest," he noted.

Both camps have tried to play up evidence of grass-roots support, from blogs on the pro-ODF side to letters written by small businesses against the proposed legislation -- letters that turned out to have been penned by Microsoft resellers and partners.

A heavyweight brawl

But, Wyne said, "this really is a battle among large commercial interests" -- a comment that was echoed by other people engaged in the political fighting.

In Texas, corporate lobbying was also behind both the creation and eventual demise of HB1794, a bill in favor of open formats. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Marc Veasey, acknowledged that he became interested in the issue only after being approached by former political colleagues who now work for IBM.

But he insisted that the deciding factor in convincing him to propose the bill was a conversation with officials at the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) who told him they would welcome such legislation. The DIR officials "said that while there was nothing to prevent us from immediately going to open document formats, they would prefer, for a variety of reasons, for the legislature to say, 'We're going to this format,'" Veasey said.

That isn't the way it was recalled by Jonathan Mathers, though. Mathers is chief clerk for the Committee on Government Reform in the Texas House of Representatives and is in charge of researching bills for the committee, which considered and eventually quashed HB1794.

"The committee wanted a flat-out answer from the DIR," he said. "Was [moving to open document formats] something we should be doing right now? And did they need the backing of the committee to do it? The answer in both cases was no."

Keeping it private

The other problem, Mathers said, was the jargon-laden disinformation that committee members felt they were being fed by lobbyists for both IBM and Microsoft. Although lobbyists would tell the committee one thing in private, they got cold feet when asked to verify the information publicly under oath. "Suddenly, nobody wanted to sign witness affirmation forms and testify," he said.

That undermined the credibility of each side, but it particularly damaged the position of ODF proponents. After Wyne testified publicly that in Massachusetts, only a handful of computers had thus far been converted over to using ODF. IBM declined to dispute her claims, Mathers said -- despite having earlier given "gleaming" reports on the progress of ODF in Massachusetts. "That's when I really started to question the whole bill," he said.

Veasey blamed other factors. For example, he claimed that the reform committee has a historical bias against government mandates. He also cited Microsoft's tactics. According to Veasey, the software vendor cooperated with him on initial drafts of the bill but then refused to sign off at the last moment. He said said Microsoft also hired a top local lobbying firm that went to the expense of bringing in witnesses from other states and countries.

All of that was unnecessary, Veasey said. The bill's language put Office Open XML on a level playing field with ODF, even though the former is still seeking the approval from the international standards organization ISO that the latter already has. "From my perspective, Open XML would have fit now," said Veasey, who added that he plans to continue pushing for open document formats when the Texas legislature meets for its next biennial session in 2009.

Bottled bills

Oregon's attempt to push state agencies toward open document formats -- officially known as House Bill 2920 -- met the same fate of dying in committee.

"There was heavy opposition from a certain large software company in Redmond, Wash.," a spokesman for Rep. Peter Buckley said Friday. "But we don't name names." Buckley, a Democrat, sponsored the bill in the state legislature.

His spokesman said Oregon's secretary of state also questioned the cost of converting to applications that support open formats. Buckley plans to reintroduce his bill in the next legislative session. But as in Texas, the earliest that could happen is January 2009.

In Florida, a bill that landed on the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist last Friday once included language that touted open document standards. But that section never made it out of the committee process. "It was added as an amendment but struck by the members in committee," confirmed Ray Wilson, staff director of the state senate's committee on governmental operations.

The amendment to Senate Bill 1974 would have required state agencies be able to receive documents in open formats but would not have automatically banned proprietary formats. Even so, Microsoft's reaction was swift.

According to a story posted in late April on the MarketWatch Web site, Rep. Ed Homan, the Republican legislator from Tampa who tried to amend the bill, said that Microsoft lobbyists pressured committee members to yank the addition. "They were here lickety-split," he told MarketWatch.

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