Microsoft Gains Political Edge in ODF Battles

Bills requiring open document formats fail in five states after heavy lobbying

A bill introduced last week in the New York legislature would require the states IT director to study the issue of using open document formats within government agencies. If the measure passes, New York will become the latest state to consider the idea of moving away from Microsoft Corp.s proprietary Office formats.

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

The proposals were backed by supporters of the Open Document Format for Office Applications, including IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. Nonetheless, a bill that was introduced in Connecticut met a quick death earlier this year. And in Florida, Texas and Oregon, would-be laws were all killed off within the past month while being debated in legislative committees, following heavy opposition from Microsoft lobbyists and allies.

The most recent defeat occurred late last month in California, where a toned-down version of a bill in favor of open formats was declared to be stalled in the state assemblys appropriations committee. That happened despite the fact that the bills sponsor Mark Leno, a Democratic assembly­man from San Francisco chairs the committee.

Only Minnesota has approved a bill on open document formats thus far this year, and that was a Pyrrhic victory for ODF advocates. Like the bill in New York, the measure signed into law in Minnesota simply calls for the states IT department to study the issue. Initially, it would have required state agencies to begin using an open, XML-based document format by July 2008.

Don Betzold, a Democratic state senator who was the original sponsor of the open formats proposal, said he and other Minnesota legislators felt overwhelmed by the technical jargon presented by each side. I wouldnt know an open document format if it bit me on the butt, Betzold said. Were public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job.

Microsoft didnt respond to requests for comment about the legislative results in the various states. But one of the companys close allies said the outcomes revealed the unpopularity of technical mandates.

The media stories [about 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 killed, stalled indefinitely or, in the case of Minnesota, turned from an outright mandate into a study bill.

Wynes group is the lobbying arm of the Computing Technology Industry Association, which worked closely with Microsoft to fight the bill.

Despite the string of defeats, Marino Marcich, executive director of the Washington-based OpenDocument Format Alliance, said the fight has just begun. 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, Marcich said.

With the private sector showing little interest in adopting ODF, the formats proponents have set their sights on government users. And the national governments in countries such as Norway, Belgium, Denmark and France are 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. Even there, technical and political issues have limited the implementation of the policy (see story below).

Microsoft has fought the various state bills even though it is seeking to have Office Open XML the file format used in Office 2007 approved as a standard by the Geneva-based ISO standards body. ODF received the ISOs stamp of approval last year.

Lobbyist Influence

Betzold said that Microsofts hardball lobbying tactics played a role in the outcome of the debate over the open formats bill in Minnesota. But he added that neither side was innocent. IBM had their own interest, and Microsoft had their own interest, he noted.

Texas State Rep. Marc Veasey said he became interested in the open formats issue after a meeting with former political colleagues who now work as lobbyists for IBM.

Veasey insisted, though, that the deciding factor in persuading him to propose a bill calling for the use of open formats was a conversation with officials at the Texas Department of Information Resources. He said the DIR officials told him 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, Were going to this format.

But Jonathan Mathers, chief clerk for the Committee on Government Reform in the Texas House of Representatives, said committee members heard something completely different from the DIR.

The committee wanted a flat-out answer from the DIR, said Mathers, who is in charge of researching bills for the panel. 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.

The DIR didnt respond by press time to questions about its position on the open formats bill. But Veasey blamed other factors, including Microsofts lobbying tactics, for the reform committees decision to quash the proposal.

Microsofts opposition was unnecessary, Veasey said, adding that the bills language put Open XML on a level playing field with ODF. He plans to continue pushing for open document formats when the Texas legislature meets for its next biennial session in 2009.

California lawmaker Leno vowed in an e-mail last week that he would again try to pass his open formats bill when the state legislature begins the second half of its current two-year session in January.

Oregons attempt to push state agencies toward open document formats also died in committee. There was heavy opposition from a certain large software company in Redmond, Wash., said a spokesman for Rep. Peter Buckley.

The spokesman said that Buckley, who sponsored the bill, plans to reintroduce the measure in the next legislative session. But as in Texas, the earliest that could happen is January 2009.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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