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To read comments to this article, go here
MA Posts New Version of Open Formats - Requests Comments
Tuesday, March 22 2005 @ 11:59 AM EST

Version 3 of the State of Massachusetts Information Technology Division's Enterprise Technical Reference Model is now posted online for public comment. Go to www.state.ma.us/itd and look for the story in the "Highlights" box. The deadline for such comments is April 1. Yes. April 1.

To refresh your memory, MA has defined open formats to mean this:

"Open Formats, as we're thinking about them, and we're trying to be precise with the language, because people use different English words for different technical terms, in our definition, 'Open Formats' are specifications for data file formats that are based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community and affirmed by a standards body; or, de facto format standards controlled by other entities that are fully documented and available for public use under perpetual, royalty-free, and nondiscriminatory terms."

They have now accepted Microsoft XML as fitting that definition. Obviously, that means they must be defining "nondiscriminatory" as meaning making something available to all comers at the same price, or something like that. It can't be that they are using the word to mean that the format doesn't discriminate against GPL software, because Microsoft's license, the last one I saw, does exacly that.

In life, we always have a choice, to view things optimistically or pessimistically. I am inclined to think the best of people, and to give them all the respect I can, so I guess I'm more inclined to be an optimist, but I will now do both, view the new model both optimistically and pessimistically, and you can choose, according to your own inclinations.

First, pessimistically, it's depressing that they include Microsoft's XML as an "open format", because one can easily imagine what Microsoft, a company not renowned for its exalted ethics, will do with this. There simply is no way to describe anything Microsoft does as "open". Microsoft has been very diligently patenting their XML all over the world, from here to New Zealand. If they assert those patent rights, there won't even be an illusion of openness, not to mention other issues, like the license conflict with the GPL or the specification being in a binary format that can only be read on a Windows computer and things like that. I think that MS has made every effort to avoid any possible benefit that an open format might have produced. It isn't hard, therefore, to see this as a serious compromise, and that would be phrasing it delicately.

Most people won't distinguish between open standards and open formats, although there certainly is one, or know the difference, and folks may be bamboozled into staying with Microsoft, based on an illusion of "openness", without understanding the very limited purpose of the open format concept Massachusetts came up with or what it is for. Further, if you compare this with the EU stand, it's puzzling why Massachusetts doesn't try to at least match up with the EU, especially when the EU is doing all the heavy lifting. Probably their answer would be that open formats are solely for the purpose of making sure documents can be read way down the road. They are not trying to define an open standard for any other purpose.

The EU framework hammers into place a foundation built on four corners: Open Standards, Open Source, Open XML Technologies, and an Open service-oriented architecture, and on that foundation they then pound home open interfaces, open messaging and communications protocols, open run time engines, and portable open class libraries. Why, then, should any governmental body settle for less? I posit that Massachusetts is sincerely doing what it feels it can, and they may have reasons I can't see. I can't say I am surprised, but I am still disappointed.

Optimistically, they have responded to input, and they do now list the OpenDocument format. That is tremendous, and I applaud them for doing so and I wish to say thank you. The fact that Massachusetts did listen to input is encouraging, especially because the final version is not yet before us, and they are asking for comments again.

It's also encouraging because the real decisions come from the marketplace, and as long as folks have a choice, I'm happy. Here is an article that demonsrates what I mean, about a company that is switching to Firefox, and notice why:

When Bill Robertson decided last year to switch 450 workers and 100 desktops at De Bortoli Wines to the open source Firefox web browser, he had the company's future in mind.

In moving to the free Firefox, he did more than just install a web browser that rivals Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which comes for free with every PC running the Windows operating system. The CIO defined a radically new desktop interface for the company and forced his software suppliers to comply with his technology direction, which had a heavy emphasis on open standards so he would no longer be locked into any one vendor's products.

Firefox is a small and streamlined web browser created by the US-based charity The Mozilla Foundation from the bones of the Netscape and Mozilla browsers. It runs on all desktop computers and supports most languages.

Firefox is often paired with its open source sibling, Thunderbird, a free email client that competes with Microsoft's Outlook in the enterprise. . . .

"We are masters of our own destiny, and we can run a lean and efficient operation," says Mr Robertson. "Neutral standards support our decisions when we select free products and empower us in the marketplace when we buy."

When folks are given a choice, and they see a way to escape from "vendor lock-in", they take it. By vendor lock-in, they mostly mean Microsoft. I think it's safe to say that a lot of people in this world despise that company's business practices and don't much want to be a customer of a company that behaves as it does. I believe we will see that feeling expresssing itself more and more and more, as long as the marketplace offers them a choice.

Governmental agencies and standards bodies can be subverted. I'm not saying that is what happened here necessarily, but speaking in general, Microsoft's power and money are a factor. We've seen it. Remember the money that was given to the head of the organization that decided to pull out of the EU process and not pursue Microsoft there any more? But unless Microsoft decides to start paying customers to use their products, as long as there is a viable choice, customers will walk away from that company, unless there is a serious, radical shift in Microsoft's way of doing business. I view all efforts on their part to dominate the standards process and twist it to their advantage to try to exile GPL software from the mainstream, as in the SenderID performance, as proof positive that they haven't changed a bit and that I don't want to do business with a company that behaves that way. Their antiLinux FUD is profoundly offensive too. I know I am not alone in that feeling.

The remedy for all that is education. FUD only works when people don't know the truth. That is an abiding belief of mine, and I have witnessed its truth in the Groklaw story.

So, as you see, I'm inclined to be an optimist. You'd have to be, I guess, to do Groklaw at all. But while one could have said to me when I first started that the situation was hopeless -- I was a nobody, with no money, no PR, no influence, no numbers, no credentials, no support, just one small voice in the blogosphere when I began -- what would you say now? Is it possible? SCO had the backing of Microsoft, financially (circuitously) and FUDwise, and millions to spend on telling their story to the universe. But the community rallied, we seriously answered their FUD, and the rest is history. So, all I'm saying is this: don't overestimate Microsoft's power, because it will enervate you. And don't underestimate what a clear, concerted, sustained education campaign can do. That is exactly what Groklaw is for, and with your help, I believe we can be successful.

I have confidence that people have an innate sense of justice. And no one likes being forced in any particular direction. Microsoft's entire business model, as far as I can see, is based on injustice to its competition and monopoly-enforced lock-in for its customers. That appeals to no one but Microsoft. Why would it? So, our job is to help people see that they have viable options. That really is all we need to do. They will just naturally do the rest on their own. Furthermore, I believe it will happen.

I am saying all this to say that providing comments on the process, thoughtful, positive, but clear comments, has a value of its own, I believe, no matter what Massachusetts chooses in the end to do. And I by no means think that Massachusetts is trying to do less than its best here. Your comments are part of the cumulative educational process that we are embarked on.

If you do comment on the MA page, can you please also record your comments here? This site is for historians, too, among other things, and I'd like to have a permanent record here of everything we say.


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