Microsoft Lobbies Legislatures to Kill ODF Bills: Time to Tackle The Issue Elsewhere

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Microsoft will take a well-deserved beating this week in the wake of a ComputerWorld article about how its lobbying efforts derailed states' legislative efforts to mandate the use of open document standards, as opposed to proprietary formats that have so long been a backbone of Microsoft's lucrative productivity suite business.


Six states' proposals to mandate open document standards were met with what one could argue was a distorted wave of enthusiastic coverage in the tech press, but five of those initiatives have been out-and-out killed, with Minnesota's measure gelded to a simple admonition from the legislature to study ODF and other open standards as an option. I'd assume a paycheck from the state IT department would imply such basic data management housekeeping, but who am I to say?


A Wired blogger quickly dubbed Microsoft's tactics as "bullying," and notes that an online petition behind it own Open XML standard failed to garner much support from the "community," which of course tends to hate Microsoft. ComputerWorld does a more balanced job in its piece of noting that some big companies, most notably IBM, have more than "community spirit" at stake when it comes to tearing down Redmond's file type advantage. Still, several letters written to lawmakers in support of Microsoft turned out to be penned by channel partners. Not cool, but not surprising, either.


I have been trying to get Microsoft Office to play nicely with non-MS systems for the better part of a decade now, so believe me when I say few people are more irritated with Redmond over this whole ODF thing than I am. Here at IT Business Edge, we still are forced to use a relatively powerful (and expensive) third-party XML converter to prep Word docs for import into our content database. By not writing ODF support into Office programs, Microsoft is trying to hang on to market share at the expense of its essentially locked-in customer base, virtually all of whom work in a heterogeneous environment.


Again, not cool.


But while dishing out harsh words to Microsoft, the tech press probably should reserve scoldings for the open document advocates who decided to tackle this issue from the legislative angle in the first place.


The state legislator who sponsored the Minnesota ODF bill told ComputerWorld that lawmakers just found themselves awash in technical jargon. Here's the quote you'll see quite a bit, I'm sure:

"I wouldn't know an open document format if it bit me on the butt. We're public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job."

Makes you feel better about universal health care, doesn't it?


The one state, Massachusetts, that has successfully mandated open data standards did so via executive action by the state CIO, who you'd hope has a more robust view of why it's good to be able to get at government data with any number of software packages.


A spokesperson for the ODF Alliance tells ComputerWorld that despite the near-term setbacks, his organization expects to make major gains at the state level over the next three years, either legislatively or through executive action. I expect the latter tact to be far more fruitful -- it's the same arch that will drive the private sector to ODF, as some shops will want to pay for Office's powerful feature set and others will simply want to open memos seamlessly, regardless of which program was used to create them.


Microsoft will have to come to terms with the fact that "bullying" customers who are being offered a choice is a good way to lose them.