You can be proud as you walk Boston’s Freedom Trail today, because inside the Commonwealth of Massachusetts government buildings you pass, patriots are working on a new kind of freedom. They’re dumping boxes of Microsoft Office in Boston Harbor and screaming, “The Redmond coats are coming!”
Massachusetts has decided to phase out Office applications in favor of those based on open standards, including the recently approved OpenDocument standard, based on XML, used by OpenOffice.org and other Open Source applications. The proposal would mandate that the Open Document Format be used for all “office” documents (ie, word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation documents). Because OpenDocument is incompatible with Microsoft Office, the Massachusetts policy would effectively require state agencies to abandon Microsoft Office. If the proposal is accepted, state agencies will have until January 2007 to replace their Microsoft Office software with standardized alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org.
Massachusetts officials believe that the cost of sticking with Microsoft is a major pain point — the next version of Office will not run on Windows 2000 and the Commonwealth would be forced to upgrade the operating systems for approximately 80,000 employees.
Massachusetts battled Microsoft before; it was the last state to hold out for more penalties back in 2003 when Microsoft and the Department of Justice settled. Although some governments and regional authorities in countries such as Brazil, Peru, India and China, and several European countries have adopted Open Source software, Massachussetts is the first U.S. state to do so.
ZDNet‘s David Berlind provides more detailed coverage and links to audio recordings of the proceedings in Microsoft vs Mass.: What ever happened to ‘The customer is always right’?. Berlind writes: “Is it just me, or is there something highly unusual about the extremely hard time that Microsoft is giving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over its decision to move to Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for storing files produced by productivity applications like word processors and spreadsheets?”
Berlind cites Nicholas Carr, author of Does IT Matter?, who points out in his blog: “This isn’t about Microsoft. It’s about a state government launching a serious and comprehensive initiative to replace its fragmented, inefficient set of traditional information systems with a modern, coherent, and flexible IT architecture that allows data to be shared and reused easily.”
Berlind puts it into perspective for the typical Office user in Carr gives Microsoft a taste of its own OpenDoc medicine (and I pile on). “Ironically, in the same breath that Microsoft is using cost and other reasons to dissuade the Commonwealth from attempting to move to a new and different document format, just about every user of Microsoft Office must do that anyway in order to support Microsoft’s new XML formats… Not only should more public agencies heed Massachusetts’ OpenDoc policy, all businesses and organizations should. If Microsoft is so confident that its royalty-free but non-open XML-based document formats are that much better for its customers, then it should support both OpenDoc as well as its own in Microsoft Office.”
“In other words, if they’re so good, what does Microsoft have to lose by supporting both? Well, how about Windows’ domination, for starters? One important key to Windows’ domination of the industry is Microsoft Office’s inextricable link to it.”
For many businesses, Office already serves as the maddeningly familiar interface for databases that hold critical business information. People use Word, Excel, and Outlook to fill out and submit electronic forms and to prepare up-to-date reports from business information scoured from company databases. If all this activity could be better accomplished with XML, Microsoft’s hold on businesses with Office might loosen. So Microsoft is moving quickly to embrace XML and incorporate the standard into its vision of Office-dominated computing.
Open source advocates see this move as treachery of the highest order, and they envision the destruction of XML itself, or at least its marginalization, as Microsoft adds extensions to the standard that work only with Office. A similar move by Microsoft years ago nearly capsized Java and sparked a lawsuit from Sun Microsystems.
XML was designed to increase the portability of documents, not to decrease it. The markup language does not affect content — you can use or strip out XML’s embedded markup tags to reproduce the document’s content. But Microsoft has extended XML to include a wide range of active functions that do affect content.
A Microsoft XML document can, for example, activate ActiveX components to perform functions with other applications, interact with a dynamic link library (DLL), or pass tagged content to a Visual Basic script. Developers can use Microsoft XML tools to make documents that automatically update themselves or documents that can’t be emailed to people who are not on a predefined list. It can even be used to make documents that delete their own contents if called up after some pre-specified date. This goes way beyond standard XML usage into dangerous territory, and the reason Microsoft did it was to turn Office documents into clients for server-based processes.
With these capabilities available, fraud detection is far more difficult, if not impossible. You can receive a secured document on CD that can still be subverted by a bad guy able to spoof the remote server. Even more likely, your documents might become unreadable due to a glitch or server upgrade. Documents might refuse to display themselves on PCs that fail to meet hardware identification or software licensing checks. Truth, once again, could be compromised, as the same document could show different content to different people or at different times.
Indeed. Get off the Word doc format, the Excel spreadsheet format, and the PowerPoint presentation format. You have nothing to lose but the Microsoft tax — and you have no representation in Redmond where the Customer is no longer King.