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Microsoft vs. Open Formats

Open file formats are essential for government information because they provide a better opportunity for open exchange, reuse, and preservation of public information. As was reported a couple of weeks ago (see Open Formats Legislation Killed in Florida), Microsoft opposed a piece of Florida legislation that would have required the state to develop “a plan and a business case” for using open file formats in documents the state creates. This story has not been widely covered (I still have not found anything in LexisNexis), but the Wall Street Journal now confirms the story.

…within an hour of the proposed bill’s reading in late March, Dr. Homan said, he was greeted in his office by three lobbyists representing Microsoft Corp. “They were here lickety-split,” he said. “I had no idea it was going to get that kind of reaction.”

The WSJ reports that the Florida instance was not unique, saying that Microsoft has mounted a lobbying effort against ODF, the OpenDocument Format, which was ratified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Texas faced a similar lobbying effort from Microsoft:

Soon after introducing an open-document format bill in the Texas state legislature in February, Rep. Marc Veasey said it was clear Microsoft was going to commit considerable time and effort to influencing the outcome. “Immediately we heard from Microsoft and their lobbyist here in Austin, and we knew we’d be up against a tough battle.”

ODF is important to government information because, as the WSJ says, “Document formats serve as an underlying digital container, controlling access to files like spreadsheets and the ability to share them.” [emphasis added] And:

The impetus for the Texas bill was similar to that in other states — a desire to ensure access to archived and current documents regardless of which company’s application is used to open them, and lower costs. [emphasis added]

It is not just about saving money or lowering costs or short-term financial savings. It is about long-term preservation of knowledge and access to public information.

InfoWord also covers the story:

It would be one thing if Microsoft were fighting efforts to put open source/open standards on a superior footing. But it’s trying to keep ODF from even receiving equal treatment.

Dr. Horman (the Florida legislator) is right when he suggests:

Microsoft sees what’s coming. Things like Word and Excel are sort of like a drug now getting ready to go generic.

With 97% market share in the office productivity suite market, it’s understandable that Microsoft would feel threatened. Understandable, but not laudable.

That drug analogy is particularly appropriate, not hyperbole, when one sees this tactic that Microsoft is using as reported in the WSJ article:

Earlier this month, the company said it will offer a $3 software suite to students in developing countries, which will help position Microsoft against cheaper open-source products available there. [emphasis added]

Three Dollars! The analogy doesn’t go far enough. This is less like prescription pharmaceuticals under patent and more like street drugs with the pusher giving the first dose for free.

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