State’s Snub on File Formats Caught Microsoft by Surprise

According to an e-mail written by a Massachusetts official, Microsoft was given just over 30 days advance warning that the state’s IT division wouldn’t be including Office Open XML as an acceptable file format in a draft of Version 3.5 of its open-standards blueprint posted online on Aug. 31, 2005.

Linda Hamel, the IT division’s general counsel, sent the e-mail on Aug. 1 of last year to then-CIO Peter Quinn and his boss, Eric Kriss, who was the state’s secretary of administration and finance. Hamel said she had spoken with Erich Anderson, a lawyer for Microsoft’s desktop division, about a July 28 meeting at which state officials delivered the news on Open XML to the company.

During their telephone call, Anderson indicated that he was “quite surprised” to hear of the plans to adopt the Open Document Format for Office Applications as a standard, given Microsoft’s “prior attempts to accommodate” the state on its formats, Hamel wrote. She added that Anderson asked why the state “had a change of heart” about Open XML after listing it as acceptable in a draft of Version 3.0 of the Enterprise Technical Reference Model blueprint in March 2005.

Hamel wrote that she told Anderson the decision was the result of public comments received after the posting of the ETRM 3.0 draft and discussions at the Open Format Summit the IT unit had held in June. She also cited the state’s “need to ensure that documents remain readable over the long term as the technology evolves, independent of specific vendors.”

The IT division deleted the entire section on data formats from ETRM 3.0 before publishing the final version in May 2005. But in ETRM 3.5, the formats section was restored and listed ODF and Adobe Systems Inc.’s Portable Document Format as meeting the state’s criteria.

Alan Yates, general manager of business strategy in Microsoft’s information worker product group, said last month that the company thought it had addressed the concerns of state officials about its formats.

“We had an agreement,” Yates said, “that our changing the license for our [Office] 2003 open file format was what they wanted, and they posted that on their Web site. They said, ‘That’s what we were looking for in openness for a format.’ And then when they made the ODF mandate, that changed immediately. That surprised us.”

But Kriss, who oversaw the IT division and instigated the adoption of the state’s ODF policy, said last week that he doesn’t see how Microsoft could have been surprised. He said that Microsoft’s agreement to amend its license briefly appeared to meet the state’s criteria for openness but that Massachusetts officials continued to wrestle with issues involving the company’s patents.

“At every step along the way, we were extremely clear,” telling Microsoft that the state wanted it to drop any right to assert patent claims on its file formats, Kriss said. He added that he was in the room for every significant conversation with Microsoft. “It was conducted completely above-board,” he said. “That’s just the way I am.”

E-mails obtained by Computerworld show that state officials also held discussions with Sun Microsystems about its intellectual property rights with respect to ODF.

In a message dated July 22, 2005, Sun’s Jonathan Nimer notified the state that the company was “just about finished with preparing a statement about not asserting our patents, subject to reciprocity, concerning the XML” file format specification. State records show Nimer sent the statement on Aug. 1.

Eight days later, Hamel informed various IT division colleagues via e-mail that Sun’s covenant “fully” satisfied any legal concerns she had.

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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