Your Mail: Open Debate About OpenDocument

James Prendergast's column, Massachusetts Should Close Down OpenDocument, touched a nerve among's tech savvy readers and ignited a heated response.

Below is a sample of some of the mail we received:

Bob Halloran of Jacksonville, Fla., wrote:

1) Massachusetts' argument was simple: they didn't want their public documents at the mercy of one vendor's (Microsoft) planned obsolescence. Try reading an Office '95 file with Office 2003; it doesn't work so well. Their upcoming release requires re-formatting all your existing documents to their new standard.

2) Their criteria were also simple: a published standard, minimal or no copyright/patent encumbrances, and preferably set by a vendor-independent body. Adobe's PDF spec works because it *is* publicly available, has multiple products supporting it 100 percent, and has no license fees associated with it. Microsoft's office file formats are secret, and they walked away from the group that set up the OpenDocument spec.

3) Comments made by the IT chief for the state said there would be costs to convert from the current office suite regardless of what was replacing it. The costs to convert to OpenDocument were estimated at $5 million; upgrading the current vendor's product would cost $50 million, both in license fees and upgraded PCs to support the newer product.

Saving 90 percent seems to me a wise use of public dollars.

4) There are multiple products available supporting the OpenDocument format, and one presumes that if Microsoft wants to sell into the government market, they will adapt and offer it themselves. If they choose not to listen to these customers' wants, those customers have the right (and in the case of government, the obligation) to take their business elsewhere. Attempting to win business by legislation is anti-competitive in the extreme.

Michael Matsuzaki writes:

I just wanted to say that [Prendergast’s] column is erroneous and full of "FUD" (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). He ignorantly states that Massachusetts' new policy "promises to burden taxpayers with new costs and to disrupt how state agencies interact with citizens, businesses and organizations." Nothing can be further from the truth.

OpenOffice products are free of charge and work on many OS platforms. And they allows better exchange of files because of a general format instead of a proprietary one like Microsoft’s.

He continues, "For many needs, such applications do not exist and will have to be built from the ground up. In other cases, the OpenDocument solution may cost more and provide less, but agencies and citizens will have to pay the price and make do." What is he talking about? I have used OpenOffice products for three years. I have not had many problems. I have easily been able to convert document files.

Finally, I believe Mr. Prendergast misrepresents information technology experts on the whole. I am a network engineer for a company that has converted 90 percent of our files and computers to open document formats. We have not spent a penny on this conversion.

My employer saved hundreds of dollars and he's happy. I'm happy that he's happy.

Sean Daly writes:

The right-minded initiative of Massachusetts to safeguard long-term accessibility of official documents while reducing information technology costs and promoting innovation and competition will encourage other governments and businesses to stop wasting money on closed proprietary software designed to benefit shareholders first, customers second, and citizens last.

Robert Cole writes:

The OpenDocument format is well in the process to establish itself as an ISO standard and will probably be so in the first half of 2006.

Why anyone thinks this drives up costs I have no idea. If Microsoft ends up supporting the standard (which I'm sure they will if Massachusetts holds its course) then no one will have to change software.

Microsoft has a long and well-documented history of not supporting standards. They have been recently working hard to corrupt the XML standard for example. They've tried and tried to corrupt web standards in general and have been somewhat successful. When they do support a standard, its normally only long enough to corrupt it with their embrace and extend practice rather than going through the proper channel to add something to an existing standard.

Joe Moore of New Zealand writes:

[Open standard] will provide a level playing field for all application developers to work towards, and will provide a standardized platform for all departments to adhere to. This will ensure that all systems, now and in the future can read the data recorded. That is a good thing, is it not?

I think the issue here is that Microsoft has taken a strategic stand not to provide data in this format, for commercial reasons, and now is trying, via James Prendergast, to create doubt in the minds of your readers to keep its products in control.

It seems that the Commonwealth has taken back that control! An easy fix is for Microsoft to comply with an open format, but why would they do that and lose control of the data (and therefore future potential revenue)? Would you want a convicted monopolist in control of your state’s data?

Brian Thomas of St. Louis, Mo., says:

[Prendergast] makes a complete hash of the facts surrounding the Massachusetts's state government's choice of OpenDocument for public records. Citing almost exclusively other Microsoft-funded organizations and well-known Microsoft apologists from the analyst and journalism communities, he makes the following unfounded, misleading, and/or simply false statements: “... the policy represents an attack on market-based competition, which in turn will hurt innovation.”

In fact, the exact reverse is the truth: The policy -- for the first time -- opens competition for software, which can read and write public documents in the state. Previous to this, only Microsoft was realistically allowed to provide office document software, because of the de facto standardization on their file formats, which they do not share with anyone.

Other software makers had to rely on reverse engineering, and while some have actually done exceptionally well (at times better than Microsoft's own products) at interpreting these formats, they are always at a disadvantage, because it is a very lengthy process.

“[The policy] makes the blind pre-determined selection of applications...”

No, it doesn’t; since any vendor (including Microsoft) can easily implement the standard within the mandated time limits, there's no predetermination involved.

“the largely immature, rarely deployed OpenDocument technology.” A wide range of very experienced people (including some Microsoft people) have been involved in the crafting of the standard, and users of software deploying the standard number in the millions.

“For many needs, such applications do not exist and will have to be built from the ground up...”

First, the same is true for the de facto standard; second, since not only the OpenDocument specification itself but very good code implementing it is available completely free to any and all who wish it, “from the ground up” is a deceitful mischaracterization of the effort involved, particularly compared to a “standard” which is unavailable and must be learned only by extensive reverse engineering -- of which the latest proposed version threatens to make such activity not only difficult but illegal through patents.

“may cost more and provide less”: The only reason this is not an outright lie is the word “may.” It will absolutely NOT cost more; in many cases it will be absolutely free of cost, but in all cases, the availability of competing implementations means it WILL cost less.

“second-rate file format...”: This gets the chutzpah award. Not only is Microsoft not guaranteed to be the only party capable of creating first-rate file formats, but Microsoft themselves were members of the committee that drafted the OpenDocument spec, so that if it’s less than it should be they have only themselves to blame.

The cost-of-switching argument is particularly galling since it has traditionally been artificially high as Microsoft has repeatedly forced changes on the user community, requiring them to migrate their data and applications with little benefit except to Microsoft, which constantly changes file formats to keep ahead of the reverse-engineering efforts of competitors. More than that, it is likely that switching to Microsoft's proposed standard will be even more costly, since in fact there are currently NO implementations of it.

The ability to correspond with the government is a matter of Constitutional freedom. That one private entity should be allowed to control access to that freedom is absolutely unacceptable -- even where that one entity has not been multiply convicted of predatory, anti-competitive business practices.

Chris Gregan of Frederick, Md., writes:

[Prendergast’s] assertion that open document will cost the taxpayers more money than proprietary formats is absurd. OpenOffice, which natively uses open document formats, is free, both in cost and license restrictions. It runs on Windows, and freely opens, edits, and reformats closed format document files such as .doc and .xls. So far, cost is zero.

Perhaps Mr. Prendergast refers to training and infrastructure cost? The fact is that the OpenOffice Organization, the makers of OpenOffice, have made great efforts toward simplifying the use of OpenOffice, and bringing its user interface in line with Microsoft Office functionality. Training will be as minimal as it is for the latest MS Office version. I'll go so far as to say, OpenOffice has a superior user experience over MS Office.

Familiarity with inefficiency is no excuse for perpetuation of inefficiency. As for infrastructure cost, OpenOffice is downloadable from the Internet, and as I mentioned above, runs on Windows. So again, costs seem to be zero.

How can he possibly say that publishing the format openly in public could stifle innovation? Open standards are what has pushed the open source software movement from a dorm room in Europe to the dominant operating system for such companies as Ebay, Google, IBM, Novell, Sun, and 60 percent of the Internet web servers. To say open standards stifle innovation is to turn your back on the past 15 years of IT innovation.

Open formats for government documents allow better control and public access. Microsoft, in its quest to force users to upgrade every five years, has made its early formats unreadable by its future office software. This forces state governments to upgrade software, and in most cases hardware, to support the latest formats. This type of rollover is not sustainable in times of shrinking government budgets and strained economies. Open formats will allow government to control its upgrade cycles, no longer tied to the whims of a corporation. It will also be able to open archived documents without worrying that the format is no longer supported.

The fact that the format is open means that anyone can create a program to read and edit these documents.

Additionally, the public will have better access to documents. Currently, you need to have a $200+ piece of software to read the government's documents. After the switch, the citizens will be able to examine any document using a free of cost, and freely distributable office software suite.

"Massachusetts likes to think of itself as a bellwether state, a maverick for other states to follow." We should all be so lucky as to have a state government interested in promoting open standards.

John Morgan writes:

The decision to change formats was not arbitrary. When they looked at all the various data formats used throughout the state, the Massachusetts IT leaders realized that it was extremely difficult to share information between their data processing systems. In addition, there was no way to ensure that this data would still be readable 10, 20 or 100 years from now. The adoption of OpenDocument will help to ensure that information can be shared now and in the future.

The argument that OpenDocument is “largely immature” and “rarely deployed” is also specious. This format was developed and reviewed by experts in document formatting and data representation over several years. This hardly qualifies as “immature,” especially compared to the new Microsoft format. Also, this format is relatively vendor-neutral precisely because it hasn't been widely deployed before.Another specious argument is that applications will need to be rebuilt from scratch to adopt the new format. Usually it is a small job to change an application to store and retrieve data in a new format; the hardest part is defining the new format. In a few cases it may be necessary to write a conversion program, but if the original format is properly documented this is not normally a major problem.

Bill Allaire writes:

What has stopped Microsoft from supporting the document format? That would be recognizing an Open Format, which MS doesn't have exclusive control over. MS cannot issue a license that could later be revoked. MS would have to participate and work within a group instead of bastardizing an existing standard or creating their own closed "standard."

"Worse, the policy represents an attack on market-based competition, which in turn will hurt innovation." Do you really believe that Corel WordPerfect provides any competition at all to MS Office? Can you think of another major word processor? With an open format, all word processing programs and/or suites now have a chance to compete. Because the file format (and when is the last time a office user discussed the Word file format???) is standard and open to all of them, they will have to compete on differences. They will be forced to innovate to attract a user base from the other "competitors."

"In many cases, new technologies will have to be purchased even when current systems are fully functional. In other words, taxpayers will be paying duplicative costs."

Which cases? Which new technologies? Why is there no mention to the cost of the new MS licenses? Why not share with the taxpayers that excessive cost that still doesn’t solve archiving or SOA concerns?

"Businesses, organizations and citizens who interact with the state will also be forced to support Massachusetts' mandated technologies." Here is a surprise: businesses that try to avoid using MS end up having to purchase MS products to support the technology a given business is using. As is usual, the door swings both ways.

"...even citizens who want to take advantage of online services will potentially have to purchase, install and learn new software to comply with the policy." OpenOffice is free to anyone. As more and more people come online, they would have to purchase MS technology to deal with MS technology.

What happens when states and countries of the world bring their non-MS formats online (Germany, Brazil, etc.)? We will have to use what they use to exchange documents. Like it or not, MS will lose its nearly exclusive lock on office file formats. There will be competition and innovation in this near dead area ruled by MS.

"The policy also fails to consider accessibility by citizens and state employees with disabilities who rely on assistive technologies." Good point. What isn't clear yet is when this system will be fully in place in Massachusetts. During that time, the companies who provide accessibility hardware and software will have time to support the new format. However, I'm positive it will be far simpler to support than MS Word ever was due to a clear, available format specification to follow.

"The Massachusetts policy would instead direct contracts to just a few technology providers, while many would be locked out." So far, only MS appears to be locked out and that is their choice. They are choosing not to support Open Document whereas they have support for other document formats. Others have expressed support.

MA is giving us a chance to choose. Instead of documents being available to “we who can afford MS software,” documents will be available to be read with free tools that anyone regardless of their economic background can afford.

Editor's Note:

The column "Massachusetts Should Close Down OpenDocument" that appeared on Sept. 28 identified author James Prendergast as executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, but failed to disclose that Microsoft is a founding member of that organization.

ATL is a coalition of technology companies, professionals and organizations that advocates for limited government regulation of technology and for competitive market solutions to technology policy. In addition to Microsoft, ATL's founding members include Staples, Inc., CompUSA, Citizens Against Government Waste, CompTIA, Small Business Survival Committee, Clarity Consulting, Cityscape Filmworks, Association for Competitive Technology and 60Plus Association.

Mr. Prendergast's affiliation with Microsoft should have been stated clearly in the article.