To:         State Senator Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr.
From:     Stephen Leibowitz
Subject: Opposition to Amendment in S.2256
Date:      November 13, 2005

Dear Senator Nuciforo:

I am writing to express my opposition to an amendment adopted as Section 4 of the proposed Commonwealth Investment Act, S. 2256. The amendment is titled, “Commonwealth Information Technology Task Force.”

The amendment has nothing to do with the stated purpose of the bill, which is the stimulus of the Massachusetts economy. As a matter of good government, it should be either a separate bill or a part of other legislation pertaining to government computer usage.

The real purpose of the amendment is to derail an initiative by the Commonwealth’s Information Technology Division. That initiative calls for the Commonwealth’s electronic documents to be stored in open formats, such as Open Document and Acrobat (PDF). I support the initiative.

In contrast, the new proprietary format of Microsoft that it plans to use in the next version of its MS Office software is closed. Insufficient published specifications and legal encumbrances by Microsoft are designed to prevent competing software from using Microsoft’s new proprietary format. The effect is that once people start using Microsoft’s new format, they are locked into using Microsoft’s software. The Massachusetts state government would be locked in, for example. And if the government distributed electronic documents to its citizens in Microsoft’s new format, the citizens would also need Microsoft software.

Open formats should not be confused with open source software. Microsoft could open their new format without open sourcing their MS Office software. And Microsoft’s format contains little or no technical innovation, a point that European antitrust officials have also made. Microsoft could innovate, and compete fairly, with a closed-source implementation of an open format.

Microsoft could easily add support for the Open Document format to its next version of MS Office. Microsoft could do this either in place of, or in addition to, their new format. The development costs for this would be small. When Microsoft had a less strong position in the office productivity software market, it implemented many formats in MS Office that originated outside Microsoft. And many of these formats were more difficult to implement than Open Document, because of their closed nature or other factors.

Microsoft and their supporters have pointed out that some accessibility software for people with disabilities works with Microsoft’s MS Office, but do not currently work with software packages, such as OpenOffice, that implement the Open Document format. This is a very recent criticism. It was not raised during a long Massachusetts study of electronic document formats, which involved much public input, including Microsoft’s. But accessibility is a valid concern, and developers of Open Document and its implementations have rocketed accessibility work to the top of their priority list.

In response to the accessibility concerns, the management of the Information Technology Division has made it clear that they are willing to delay or otherwise adjust the initiative to preserve accessibility. Over the years, they have managed a sizable computer operation in a reasonable manner. They have done this without being saddled with the layer of bureaucracy that the Senate amendment would add. It is legitimate for the legislature to monitor the situation, but a “no-confidence” amendment is not warranted.

Stephen Leibowitz