22 September 2005

Citizens Augmenting Government Waste

So here we have Microsoft-funded “Citizens Against Government Waste” (CAGW) heavily criticising Massachusetts’s switch to an internationally accepted and open document standard (not open source, open standard — but I seem to remember a large monopolist who frequently confuses the two when it suits them).

I remember CAGW, they were the organisation who had dead people writing in to support Microsoft in court a few years ago — thanks to sbergman27 for the link — is this “the dead hand of CAGW” at work again?

Let’s follow the money and find out.

Who stands to lose the most money and control if Massachusetts switches to an unencumbered document format? Big surprise, it’s CAGW sponsor Microsoft, through their dominant MS-Office suite. Why did CAGW list Microsoft’s suite last, after two other much-less-dominant examples which are waning anyway?

If you’re inclined to wallow in additional irony, consider that at least one of those examples is rumoured to be releasing an OpenDocument-enabled version of their product shortly.

Who has the least enviable reputation for pork-barrelling of all the organisations involved? That wouldn’t be “let’s get the Department of Trade to lean on the Latinos again” Microsoft would it?

Are any of the competing suites prevented from adopting the same standard? No. In fact, the source code to do just that is available under a very liberal licence, and already in everyday use by at least two different office suites (OpenOffice.org and KOffice).

Why don’t Microsoft just add the open standard (OASIS AKA OpenDocument) load and save capability to MS-Office? Because then they’d cede some control of the office software market, and add an aura of additional legitimacy to what they see as a (by definition despised) competitor. Pragmatically speaking and from the point of view of Massachusetts, it would probably be better if Microsoft didn’t add OASIS support to MS-Office as historically they have frequently “extended” or mutated standards in incompatible and/or confusing ways, which flies in the face of the whole reason for having a standard in the first place, inevitably causing additional expense and trauma.

But won’t Massachusetts be facing a big document conversion bill? There’s no particular reason for them to do so, given that the specific software they’re proposing to use can read and write both formats well. If they’re going to do a conversion anyway, doing it now will save a considerable amount of government money against the cost of converting even more documents later, as more and more state bodies adopt the standard.

There is also a risk of Microsoft complicating the MS-Office document formats in future versions, which would drive up costs — we’ve already seen a sadly-broken joke of a document file format which it pleases Microsoft to misleadingly refer to as XML, what do you suppose is coming next? Do you remember the Microsoft code to crash DR-DOS?

Will private enterprise and “average citizens” face compatibility issues? Only if Microsoft make it so.

Since the OASIS OpenDocument standard is accessible to zero-sticker-shock cross-platform software, the average citizen will have greater access to documents than ever before.

Microsoft tout MS-Office as being compatible with earlier versions, but the reality is that older versions have considerably more difficulty reading MS-Office documents exported from (ie, it doesn’t happen automatically, people have to be trained to do this) newer versions than many OpenDocument-compatible office suites do.

Another harsh reality is that newer MS-Office implementations are already pretty close to completely incompatible with document files from very old (version 5 and earlier) MS-Office documents. In other words, we’re facing a well-understood hypothetical risk in OASIS instead of a poorly understood and very real risk in MS-Office.

Will adopting Open Source undermine free market competition? No. Very much the opposite. For the first time in several years, there will again be real competition in the office software market. Companies will be able to compete for profit on merit rather than profiteering through domination.

But wait! Remember that the question isn’t even right! What Massachusetts is adopting is an open standard which already has proprietary implementations competing alongside Open Source implementations.

But what if Massachusetts had mandated Open Source wall to wall? CAGW’s supporters — namely Microsoft — would be more than welcome to produce Open Source versions of MS-Office, just as every other bidder would be (and in many cases, already does) with their own product(s).

CAGW haven’t been struck to the heart by the risk of unnecessary government expense, they’ve been struck to the hip pocket by the risk of a supporter losing their monopoly. Why else would an organisation whose home page is plastered with anti-pork-barrelling messages support a convicted monopolist’s existing monopoly?

CAGW need to remove the word “nonpartisan” from their speil, for they’ve thoroughly trampled it into the dust outside the narrow meaning of not overtly favouring one specific political party over any other.

Not only should Massachusetts adopt a public, unfettered standard for documents which allows any computer-using citizen access to their own information, they’re wise to do it immediately, rather than waiting while costs accrue, only to be trampled in the rush further down the road ahead.

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