Microsoft trounces pro-ODF forces in state battles

Bills fail in five states; Minnesota approves watered-down study legislation

In a resounding victory for Microsoft, bills seeking to mandate the use of open document formats by US government agencies have been defeated in five states, and only a much-watered-down version of such legislation was signed into law in a sixth state.

The proposed bills would have required state agencies to use freely available and interoperable file formats, such as the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications, instead of Microsoft's proprietary Office formats. The legislation was heavily backed by supporters of ODF such as IBM, which uses the file format in its Notes 8 software, and Sun Microsystems, which sells the ODF-compliant StarOffice desktop application suite.

But a bill introduced in Connecticut earlier this year met a quick death. And in Florida, Texas and Oregon, would-be laws were all killed off within the past month while being debated in legislative committees, following fierce opposition from Microsoft lobbyists and allies of the software vendor.

The most recent defeat occurred last Thursday in California, where a toned-down version of a bill in favor of open formats was declared to be stalled in the state assembly's Committee on Appropriations -- even though the bill's sponsor, Mark Leno a Democratic assemblyman for San Francisco, chairs the committee.

A spokesman for Leno declined to comment on the fate of the bill, which was introduced in February. But Microsoft also fought the proposal in California (download YouTube video).

The only recent victory for advocates of open formats was a Pyrrhic one. In Minnesota, a bill that would require state agencies to begin using an open, XML-based format by July 2008 was eventually transformed into a call for the state's IT department to study the issue. That language was attached to another bill that has been signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, according to Don Betzold, a Democratic state senator who was the original sponsor of the open formats proposal.

Betzold said he got interested in the topic of ensuring long-term access to state documents after observing the difficulty of accessing old data stored in mainframes and on floppy disks.

Too much technology

But during the ensuing policy debate, Betzold and other politicians quickly felt overwhelmed by the technical jargon presented by each side. "I wouldn't know an open document format if it bit me on the butt," he said. "We're public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job."

Microsoft didn't respond to requests for comment about the legislative results in the various states. But one of its close allies said they showed the unpopularity of technical mandates.

"The media stories you were reading [about the introduction of the bills] made it sound like there was some sort of revolution on the ODF front," said Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice in Washington. "But in each case, they were completely killed, stalled indefinitely or, in the case of Minnesota, turned from an outright mandate into a study bill."

Wyne's group is the lobbying arm of the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, which worked closely with Microsoft to fight the pro-ODF legislation.

Despite the string of defeats, Marino Marcich, executive director of the Washington-based ODF Alliance, said the legislative fight has only begun.

"We had more bills than we ever anticipated," Marcich said. "In three years, we expect open document formats to be a requirement by most states, whether that arrives via legislation or by executive policy decision."

Massachusetts stands alone

National governments in countries such as Norway, Belgium, Denmark and France are all testing or have approved moves to open file formats. But in the U.S., the only state that currently has a policy requiring the use of open formats is Massachusetts. Its policy was developed by state executive branch officials and adopted in late 2005, via an order issued by then-CIO J. Peter Quinn.

Even in Massachusetts, though, technical and political realities have limited the impact of the open formats policy.

Microsoft lobbied heavily against the policy in the state legislature, and advocates for people with disabilities complained that ODF-compliant applications don't work with screen readers and other tools used by the blind as well as Office does. Last year, Massachusetts officials said the state planned to adopt plug-in software that would let its Office users create and save files in ODF, enabling agencies to continue using the Microsoft applications.

Microsoft has fought the various state bills even though the company is putting forward Office Open XML -- the file format used in its new Office 2007 software -- as an open standard in its own right.

The software vendor's hardball lobbying tactics also played a part in the outcome of the debate over the open formats bill that was proposed in Minnesota, Betzold said. But he added that neither side was innocent. "IBM had their own interest, and Microsoft had their own interest," he noted.

Both camps have tried to play up evidence of grass-roots support, from blogs on the pro-ODF side to letters written by small businesses against the proposed legislation -- letters that turned out to have been penned by Microsoft resellers and partners.

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