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Microsoft's Yates' to MA: How About 2 Standards? - Transcript
Thursday, December 15 2005 @ 06:30 AM EST

Here, thanks to jtiner, is the transcript of Microsoft's Alan Yates' remarks at yesterday's meeting regarding ODF/MS XML in Massachusetts. The audio from Dan Bricklin is here, if you wish to follow along. Yates also spoke in the Q & A session, if anyone is in a position to transcribe that part too.

I notice three salient things, from my point of view. You may notice other points, particularly if you are technical experts, but here's how it struck me.

First, what Microsoft is asking for is that Massachusetts adopt two standards, to "open up" to that. Yates says that Microsoft has never spoken against ODF, that what Microsoft is proposing is more choice and greater competition than the current Commonwealth policy provides. They want to be included too. It's just a question of two types of business models, Microsoft's, which he describes as a model based on "the magic of software," and IBM's, based on "the magic of services." On that basis, he says public policy shouldn't favor one business model over another, that public policy shouldn't choose software.

But ODF isn't a business or a business model, nor is it Open Source. It isn't a software application you can purchase. It's a format. Massachusetts didn't choose Open Source software. It chose OpenDocument Format, which is an open standard, which anyone can support in its software products, including proprietary companies like Microsoft. For him to make such as statement indicates to me that he either doesn't understand what ODF is (unlikely) or he hopes the audience doesn't or he's trying to move the conversation to a topic he'd prefer to talk about. Whatever the motive, the effect is misrepresentation.

Second, instead of talking about data retention and preserving documents into the future, which is what Massachusetts said it wanted, he in essence tells them they should want other things, things he thinks will lead them to Microsoft, like *backwards* compatibility and value. While this might be a suitable presentation to give to a prospective business customer, Yates is talking to a government agency, one that already has told this vendor what it needs and what its priorities are. They don't want to be locked into just one vendor's products. They want to be able to access documents for a hundred years, without having to worry about changing technology or proprietary extensions or having to depend on, or having to pay, a single vendor to be able to access their own documents.

Furthermore, Massachusetts didn't say they require just any old standard. They stated they require an *open* standard. Open formats, open standards. Does anyone seriously suggest that Ecma offers that? And what about proprietary extensions? Reread the terms Microsoft proposed to Ecma, as well as their FAQ. Notice any language about extensions? From the FAQ:

Anyone is free to work with a subset of the specifications, and anyone is free to create extensions to the specifications. A 'conformant' use is simply one that does not modify the specification. Of course subsets and supersets may create incompatibilities with other uses of the specifications and we want to provide some guidance on this topic in the future, but this will be guidance and not a mandate.

Is that what Massachusetts asked for? Incompatibilities? If anyone is free to create extensions, that means Microsoft can create extensions. I take that language as a declaration of intent. Will their proprietary extensions be covered by the covenent not to sue? If not, what will the practical effect be? Openness?

Compare ODF, with a snip from Bob Sutor's prepared remarks offered at the meeting and now available on his blog:

The world is changing: there are technological advances, new market conditions and a new era of productivity, innovation and wealth creation. What this based on? The World Wide Web, which, as you may know, is based on real open standards, many of which were created under the auspices of the W3C based across the river in Cambridge.

The web and the open standards that make it possible are not under the control of any single vendor and have enabled economic development and innovation --- great new ideas --- we could not have foreseen even ten years ago.

Similarly, we are now at the cusp of unlocking a new level of innovation, by unlocking documents. The ODF open standard --- which is modern, technically elegant, implemented and maintained by multiple vendors and interested parties, with no proprietary extensions (what I like to think of as vendor-added "gotchas" that break your ability to share documents), and, I want to stress, is available today --- can be the driver of the new generation of innovation, efficiency, and cost savings.

ODF enables real choice because it is not tightly linked to any one vendor's implementation. It keeps the control of the software to use it with the Commonwealth NOT a vendor.

The Commonwealth has chosen an option that is available today -- that will help it preserve its documents for generations, increase efficiency and flexibility, give it choice and control, and decrease costs. It will also drive great new ideas that, frankly, we can't even foresee today, just as we couldn't see everything the Web would bring us in 1995. These are some of the advantages of using truly open, non-vendor controlled standards.

Third, he speaks about "choice and technology neutrality" to improve competition so that there will be, he suggests, lower costs. How do you get lower costs than free of charge? Software that supports ODF is available at no cost at all. You are facing retraining no matter what you choose, I'm told, including Microsoft's next software offering, so that isn't a factor in this picture, I wouldn't think. So how can Microsoft offer lower costs? This isn't a matter of competition leading to lower costs, then, as I see it.

"Commercial software can be quite, quite, quite open, just as Open Source software can be quite open," he says. First of all, Open Source software can be commercial too. Ask Red Hat and Novell and Mandriva. So he posits a false dichotomy. The correct comparison is between proprietary software and Open Source. Proprietary software is never as open as Open Source software. If it were, it wouldn't be proprietary. Therefore, if what you desire is openness, Microsoft is always second-best to Open Source.

Let's talk a bit about backwards compatibility. First of all, is it true that only Microsoft's XML can accurately represent Microsoft formats? How do file conversions work, after all? Isn't it that the backward compatibility is in the conversion layer between the binary formats and the XML formats, not in the XML formats themselves? The conversion layer is not being submitted to Ecma or made available to anyone else, is it? Royalty-free? Open to the GPL?

Further, Microsoft could have joined the ODF Technical Committee at OASIS, but they chose not to. Why? If interoperability is your goal, and openness, with no barriers, then it makes perfect sense to merge the two standards, as Tim Bray already has suggested, instead of having them compete. If Microsoft opened up to allow it, by providing documentation of their binary formats, ODF could be modified to meet Microsoft's needs.

Because we know Microsoft could have worked to ensure that ODF could be backwards compatible with their formats, why didn't they? Why don't they now? Why doesn't Massachusetts ask them to? Is it that no one else can do it, or is it that they *want* to be the only ones that can do it? And if that is the explanation, what does that tell you? What would be the result if only Microsoft is able to offer true and complete backwards compatibility? Would it still be an open standard in effect, or an anticompetitive weapon? "Competition between standards, we believe, is a very good thing," Yates says. Good for whom? Other than Microsoft, who benefits from competing standards?

And is backwards compatibility actually desirable in this instance in all respects? If you ensure backwards compatibility to security-challenged binaries, aren't you dragging into the future all the security headaches that have made using Microsoft software a malware nightmare for so many for so long?

Finally, consider if procurement based on a desire for compatibility with current products is anticompetitive on its face, since it ipso facto favors an existing vendor, one that in this case is a monopoly already. If your goal is to stimulate competition in the market, as Yates proposes as a goal, following such a policy ensures the opposite result, I would think. Consider this point raised in the white paper, "Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Policy Support - FLOSSPOLS, Open Standards and Interoperability Report":

Software buyers' preference for interoperability can conflict with implicit or explicit criteria for software purchasing, in particular whether new software is compatible with previously purchased software. Buyers who use the latter criterion rather than a general requirement for open standards or vendor-independent interoperability in effect remain locked in to their previously purchased software.

Preferring "compatibility" may even violate public procurement principles, since a preference - explicit or implicit - for "compatibility with previously installed software" favours the single supplier of that software, if it is based on proprietary or semi-open standards. An explicit preference, instead, for interoperability with open standards as defined in this paper does not favour a single supplier of technology and is therefore far more in keeping with public procurement principles. This may also be more in keeping with public procurement law.

Here is the transcript. If you notice any errors, please let me know so I can perfect it.


Alan Yates: Thank you very much. Thanks Tim. I am very glad to be here. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and speak on behalf of Microsoft because a) this is a very healthy public debate. It is a very important issue for a variety of, for millions and millions of companies around the world and public sector organizations, and I do hope to clear up some of, at least some of the misinformation, misperceptions, misunderstandings that has happened over a period of time, over the course of the questioning.

First of all, I will say that part of my job is to go around the world and to take a look at public policy and how it's evolving and work with public sector organizations to, as they make hard decisions around technology, and what I have seen over and over and over again is very similar to what John talked about in terms of the principles that public sector organizations are choosing. They're choosing to go with choice and technology neutrality as their primary focus in order to improve competition and the competitive environments so that they can lower cost. That's number one. But number two, they are also very, very focused on not doing anything that would compromise the delivery of value at the end of the day to their constituencies. So I guess I would, I would add to John's list of interoperability, access and control, choice, and innovation. Really around that last part, delivering value to your constituents at the end of the day is really one of the fundamental tenets of public sector organizations and agencies. Can, you know, have different sets of requirements over longer per... over long periods of time that require different choices to be made to deliver value. So, I would balance the remarks so far by saying: let's also think about keeping the focus on value.

Public sector organizations around the world that sort of balance this notion of absolute competition, choice, around their technology decisions along with being able to choose technology that gives them the most value for the money, those two things work together to be very powerful. And I would say that when you, when you focus on those two things together, you can tend to avoid a number of problems. Some of them are problems that Bob and, and Bob talked about and I think that you'll find it surprising to say that I'm not going to be arguing particularly with what Bob Sutor, Bob talked about in terms of openness.

What I'm really going to be talking about is Massachusetts actually opening up to more choice and more competition than the current policy has. That's, I think that's the fundamental decision that's before us. Can Massachusetts open up to more choice, additional standards, in order to enable greater value over a period of time? And by doing that, by enabling more choice over a period of time, you avoid the industry warfare that tends to jerk governments around from one month to the next month, to one debate to the next debate to the next debate.

Secondly, it avoids public policy sort of sitting at a craps table, trying to choose a technology and hoping that the technology is the right one, that somehow you land on the right technology to solve the problems today and tomorrow.

Third, we find quite often that policy can be used, if these principles aren't followed, policy can be used to establish political agendas. In Brazil, for example -- I was just in Brazil last week -- and a public sector CIO came to me and said, "Gosh, I've been forced to use these certain products for political reasons, and basically it's not working. I've now tried to revamp everything and gone back to the original products that were commercial software products and things are much more efficient, much more cost effective , etc, etc. But my government was choosing my software for me." Public policy shouldn't do that.

Next, public policy shouldn't necessarily favor one business model over another. Commercial software can be quite, quite, quite open, just as Open Source software can be quite open. They're simply different business models. One business model relies more on the magic of software, if you will, and one business model relies more on the magic of services, if you will, gluing disparate parts together through professional services to make it all work together. Two different business models. Governments should be open to both and to whatever else rolls down the street next. And by essentially enabling more choice, more competition like this, we feel that you avoid creating problems that sort of more narrow choices, uh, create problems like additional cost, problems like conversion cost, problems like one product may not have the accessibility features that another product may have, etc. So, again, my message is to open up to more choice.

I will say that we've been very gratified by the positive reception to our recent announcement of moving the Office OpenXML formats into a standards organizations, ECMA International, to make them utterly, completely, perpetually open by any measurement of openness at that point. When we started on this path a couple of years ago, actually, at Microsoft, we felt that there was a unique opportunity. Finally, after years and years and years of documents being small black boxes that, you know, you really couldn't open or you might corrupt the file, you might destroy the document, you might destroy the information in it, all of a sudden, XML technology has enabled us to be able to make documents and the information in documents transparent.

And instead of having documents on your desktop and information systems that can't speak together, all of a sudden there is a common language. It's called XML, that can, you can use to bridge that gap and create a common information system, if you will. We saw this nice, big opportunity that we think is not at all just a Microsoft opportunity. It is an industry opportunity. It's an industry for very small developers, It's an opportunity for growth for big line of business systems like SAP and Seibel. It's an opportunity for companies like IBM that provide services, for organizations to make interoperability work. It's an opportunity, over all, to spur innovation at a completely new level.

The, so, in getting to that point, in getting to the point where documents can be opened, documents can be XML centered, however, there are significant technical challenges. There are challenges in terms of performance. No one wants to have to open a spreadsheet that takes three minutes to open instead of what people are accustomed to today, two seconds, three seconds to open a spreadsheet.

There are plenty of problems that arise in terms of making sure that all the billions of documents that exist out there are not lost. In fact, the value that's delivered in those billions of documents in the past can be carried forward into this new open XML environment. So that was a key criteria for us as we developed our approach to OpenXML.

And then finally, we did want to make sure that the technology was open to everyone. And our earlier attempts at making it open to everyone, we listened very carefully to the feedback, actually, from all around, the Massachusetts decision about what are the nuances of licensing. The licensing area in, in technology, right now, is evolving quite, quite rapidly. So, we came up with, and in fact, we, you know, very liberally borrowed from Sun, and Sun's approach with the OpenDocument format, to come up with what we think is a way to both acknowledge intellectual property and the existence of intellectual property so not to blow up intellectual property but to make absolutely, utterly, totally clear that anyone, open source developer, anyone, can use the technology.

Now, there will still be many lawyerly debates and whatever, about one license not quite working here or there, whatever and that's a good discussion to have, a good debate to have, and, bottom line, Microsoft feels that we have made enormous strides in order to come up, really innovation with Sun around a licensing approach that essentially says you won't ever be sued for using this technology. Whether it's a subset, whether it's a superset, whether it's an extension, whether you're just using part of it, whether you're using the whole thing, doesn't matter, you, you know, you can use this technology with no concerns.

So, with that, I would just like to summarize by saying Microsoft has never argued, you know, really, against the OpenDocument format in any way, shape or form. Microsoft is really concerned about Massachusetts opening up to more choice, more competition. Competition between standards, we believe, is a very good thing in this rapidly evolving area of technology and by doing so, Massachusetts will, in fact, be a leader around the world in spurring this new level of innovation that's possible around documents. Thank you.

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