Massachusetts Dumps Office in Boston Harbor

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.

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OpenOffice.org Beta 2 Available Now for Testing

OpenOffice.org 2.0 Beta 2 is a significant improvement, although as of this writing it is still unstable and requires more bug fixes. It now looks and behaves like any other application — on Windows XP it looks more like Office or any other Windows application (although it certainly does not look like the as-yet-unreleased Office 12), and on Linux it uses the same user interface widgets as GIMP or Evolution. Beta 2, as of this writing, does not yet include a native-looking Mac OS X version; the Mac version still uses the X11 user interface.

Beginning with version 2.0 OpenOffice.org uses the open standard OASIS OpenDocument XML format as the default file format. OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications is a document format that protects content, whether it is an 800-page airline specification or a legal contract, from being locked into an application- or vendor-specific file format.

Beta 2 offers CustomShapes — shapes that can change their size and appearance — which are very similar to Microsoft’s AutoShapes (which, fortunately, are now imported and displayed correctly). The developers took pains to make OOo more compatible with Word by letting you create tables within tables (nested tables), and more compatiblle with PowerPoint by supporting more animation effects and slide transitions. It also includes a WordPerfect filter developed by the open source community. A new Table Wizard makes it easy to create database tables, and the embedded HSQLDB database engine, based on Java, lets you create database documents with table definitions, data queries, forms, and reports all stored in one XML file.

It is ready now, and the developers are asking the community to download it, test, and file bug reports. To learn why 2.0 represents the future of productivity suite technology, read the Features page.

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IE Still Massively Flawed

Microsoft investigates another IE flaw report | CNET News.com: “A new, unpatched flaw in Internet Explorer could let miscreants surreptitiously run malicious code on Windows PCs, according to the discoverer of the bug. The problem affects Internet Explorer 6 — the latest version of Microsoft’s Web browser — on computers running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and all security patches installed.”

Here’s another one:

A security flaw has been found in the default installation process for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Outlook and Outlook Express, according to eEye Digital Security (see eEye: Flaw found in IE, Outlook installation by CNET News.com). A common thread with these applications is the potential for a buffer overflow, which in turn could allow an attacker to gain access to users’ systems remotely. Systems at risk with this flaw include those running Windows XP with Service Pack 0 or 1 and Windows 2000. (Check eEye’s vulnerability assessment report for details.)

Lo and behold, eEye found more flaws involving Internet Explorer and Windows XP with SP2 that could enable a remote attack on systems: IE flaw puts Windows XP SP2 at risk (CNET News.com). The flaw can be found in default installations of IE, according to eEye’s advisory.

These discoveries come just over a month after the jolly green software giant issued a cumulative patch addressing three vulnerabilities for IE. If you still use IE, you had better get this patch. One particularly nasty flaw is the way IE handles JPEG images — an attacker could commandeer a PC by crafting a malicious image and tricking the victim to look at it on a Web site or in an HTML e-mail.

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Why Get Off Microsoft

You may not think that Microsoft code is so dangerous, but there’s plenty of evidence to support that assertion. According to a report by the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), experts in security, technology, and economic policy agree that the reliance on a single technology, such as the Microsoft Windows operating system, by such an overwhelming majority of computer systems threatens the security of the U.S. economy and critical infrastructure.

The lack of variety makes Microsoft software a consistent target. Reliance on Microsoft software affects everyone, not just on a business or professional level, but also on a personal level. It may scare you to know that, in August 2003, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Microsoft would supply the software for the agency’s 140,000 desktops. The CCIA sent an open letter asking the department to reconsider.

While almost any company in America could be put under a microscope and made to look extremely hairy and ugly, the problem with Microsoft is that it dominates the entire information technology industry, including computer systems, applications, pocket devices, home entertainment systems, networks, and the Internet. Microsoft uses its domination to lock hardware manufacturers and consumers into using Microsoft software. That means you have no choice but hairy and ugly. Until now.

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