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.

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The Massachusetts legislature approved the economic stimulus bill in June without the amendment. In early July, Microsoft announced that it was sponsoring an open-source project to develop an Office plug-in for translating files between Open XML and ODF. And Gutierrez formally announced on Aug. 23 that the state at least initially would adopt a plug-in strategy to fulfill the ODF policy. By then, he had no need to rely solely on the fruits of the Microsoft-backed project. Plug-ins also had been submitted to the state for testing by Sun and the OpenDocument Foundation.

The tortuous process that played out in Massachusetts is starting to have an effect well beyond the state’s borders. For example, without the plug-in approach, Belgium’s national government wouldn’t be able to meet ODF adoption deadlines that are due to begin taking effect next September, said Peter Strickx, chief technology officer at the Belgian Federal Civil Service’s Information and Communication Technology Division in Brussels.

Like Massachusetts, Belgium is taking a wait-and-see approach toward Open XML. “The objective is interoperability,” Strickx said. But he added that the government doesn’t plan to migrate its entire user base away from Office. “That’s between 60,000 and 80,000 users,” he noted. “We’re in a very tight budgetary situation, so we cannot ask the IT managers to spend even more on something that in their opinion doesn’t bring any real business value.”

When Gutierrez announced his resignation as Massachusetts CIO in early October, he cited the legislature’s failure to pass a bond bill that included funding for key IT projects. Since the bill also would have funded non-IT projects, the stall didn’t appear to be directly tied to any remaining opposition to the ODF policy.

Ironically, on Nov. 2, Gutierrez’s last day as CIO, Microsoft announced an agreement with Novell Inc. that included a pledge to cooperate on development of translation software to improve the way ODF and Open XML work together.

What a difference nine months had made.

Also part of this story:

What do you think of Microsoft's lobbying efforts in Massachusetts, related to the commonwealth's adoption of the Open Document Format for Office Applications? Share your thoughts on the Sound Off blog

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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