A Crusade Begins
Brian Burke’s lobbying recieved scant attention from in depth in the trade journals of the IT industry. Few were surprised at the lengths to which Microsoft would go to get its way, but after Burke’s brand of hardball, even the software giant had to backpeddle. Other lobbyists may be cutting dirtier deals every day as far as I know, but Microsoft’s attack on open source and Burke’s sleazy tactics were particularly anti-democratic. It all started with the mounting revolution to increase the choice in software and level the field for Microsoft’s competitors.
The Informational Technology Division (ITD) under a Republican administration may seem like an unlikely place for a revolution to begin, but rumblings for increased technological freedom began in the fall of 2004 when Chief Information Officer Peter Quinn, a Romney appointee, went on record as “an ardent advocate for open source.” In an industry overwhelmingly dominated by the Microsoft, just going on record was a bold step.
By the fall of 2005, Quinn’s advocacy had coalesced to the point that the Romney administration “announced plans to store government records using ODF, a move that could result in the state’s government agencies phasing out Microsoft Office.” According to a Boston Globe article, “Quinn said this policy would let state workers use different brands of software, and ensure that state documents would be readable for many years into the future.” The executive branch of our state government has 50,000 computers, but Microsoft was probably less concerned about losing a big customer than the snowball effect of open source standards. California and Belgium are considering the open source standard as well.
As one Boston Globe article noted,
[Microsoft] has over 90 percent of the office-software market, despite being priced much higher than competing products. Many software industry experts say the popularity of Office is driven by its unique file formats, which make it difficult and costly for users to switch to a different brand. If Microsoft moves to an open standard, people will be able to easily change brands. That could force Microsoft to slash the price of Office, driving down profits as it faces intense competition from booming rivals like Google Inc.
Battle lines were quickly drawn when some powerful state officials objected to the plan. Secretary of State William Galvin, who received campaign contributions from both Burke and Microsoft lobbyist Maureen Glynn, publicly criticized the plan. State Senator Marc Pacheco held a hearing on the ODF plan at which he raised his objections to open source garned contributions from Burke as well as other Microsoft employees [see CIO].
State Senator Michael Morrissey authored an amendment to which would eliminate much of ITD’s authority to make decisions and invest it in the hands of Galvin and a task force. Microsoft lobbyists are listed as campaign contributors to these candidates, according to Susannah Patton of CIO.com.
Microsoft’s Nemesis: Open Source
Put aside comparisons of the internet as an information highway. It never had much explanatory power anyway. The metaphor of a highway, or more specifically, a network of roads, however, does have some usefulness when explaining Microsoft’s monopoly to those of us who are not technologically savvy.
Just as a car needs roads to drive on, an software applications need an operating system, software that coordinates applications like MS Word or Internet Explorer, with the actual computer hardware. For most of us, this operating system is Windows, which is owned by Microsoft.
An operating system can be open or owned by a company. Linux is an example of a open operating system. It is free (or very low-cost) and because it is open, it can be adapted and improved by anyone. A proprietary operating system like Windows is neither free nor open. Although it is usually packaged with a computer, and the cost is hidden, MS Windows costs money and its codes are secret. Like operating systems, the formats of the documents and files we create on our computer can also be open or proprietary.
Document formats have played a critical role in helping Microsoft to secure and maintain its dominance of the office-productivity applications market, with more than 400 million users of its Office software worldwide. “It wasn’t the only reason that people standardized on Microsoft Office, but it was the main reason,” said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc. [Computerworld, 2006]
Bottom line: consumers have paid for Microsoft’s dominance with freedom and money. The company’s $40 billion value and its power are due, in large part, to its ability to restrict access to its codes and limit our choices when it comes to software.
Although the open source movement has an articulated philosophy, it has its roots in the idea of fair competition. The Open Source Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting open source software, was founded by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond when Netscape Communications Corporation, published the source code for its flagship Netscape Communicator product as free software, due to lowering profit margins and competition with Microsoft‘s Internet Explorer software [Wikipedia]. The open document format, against which Brian Burke vehemently lobbied, was developed by IBM, Novell, and Sun Microsystems.
Open source has never really been anti-capitalist, and open document format wasn’t the collective effort of some 98 pound weaklings to kick sand in the face of a software bully. Peter Quinn, in his testimony for the state Senate Post Audit &amp;amp;amp;amp; Oversight Committee, summarized the value of the open document format:
the Commonwealth’s documents belong to its people and should not be locked up in proprietary formats [as Microsoft products are] that either restrict access to those who are willing and able to buy particular software tools to open them, or prevent access to those records in the far future because their readability is dependent upon software that is no longer available.
State documents would readable for many years because they would be written in a code that is not owned by any one company. Any developer (even Microsoft) can design its software to accomodate ODF. As this new standard becomes more universal, an increaing number of software makers will be able compete with Microsoft on a much more level playing field, improving the actual software and lowering its price.
There are few wars without casualties. Massachusetts’ battle to institute the open document format is no exception. CIO Peter Quinn, who had done the most to institute ODF in Massachusetts fell victim to a Boston Globe hatchet job.
On Nov. 26, 2005, an article in the Boston Globe charged that Quinn had made trips to sponsored technology conferences without proper approval. Quinn was soon cleared of any alleged ethical violations, but the front-page blast spelled the end of his public sector career. Quinn believes that Microsoft was behind the story. He resigned in January, saying he didn’t want to go on fighting Microsoft and local Massachusetts officials opposed to the move to ODF.
“Everybody attributes the article to folks opposing the open format piece,” Quinn said in an interview with CIO. “Every corporation was endorsing us with the exception of Microsoft.”
In a recent interview, Microsoft officials did not confirm or deny they were involved in drawing the Globe’s attention to Quinn’s travel itinerary. “Peter’s travels were public records, and reporters just looked into it,” said Alan Yates, general manager for business strategy within the Microsoft Office team.
Quinn, of course, was innocent. But the damage was done. In an interview, he gave his reasons for tendering his resignation:
The word that the IT Bond Bill would not be reported out as part of the total bond package (so Highway and Building Construction funds would be available but not IT funding). And the word was it was all about me.
Now the folks that have say here do not know me from a hole in the wall and the funds were for projects that were totally unrelated to ITD. I clearly had set the priorities for the Bond but this funding is for projects like a new Taxpayers System, new Registry of Motor Vehicles system, etc., all projects desperately needed by the citizens of the Commonwealth. Eric Kriss and I always had a goal of making IT apolitical and now it was rapidily becoming a political football of the highest magnitude.
I took this job in the hopes of making meaningful and institutionalized IT reform. All the previous efforts were about to be for naught as political payback. IT would and will grind to a halt if IT longterm funding is not released and if the Legislation that guts the Office of the CIO is passed. This was not a prospect that I wanted to facilitate by my presence.
If I am gone, I am sure much of the gamesmanship will subside. There are many very good people doing very good work that would be marginalized (my opinion) by my continued tenure. And to be brutally frank, the instigators of much of this legislation are represented by the true bottom feeders in the Legislature, in my view. To have to bow and genuflect to their likes is not something I could ever do. I do hope rationale voices will prevail (and I believe that will be the case)
Secretary of State Galvin’s criticism of ODF and Senator Marc Pacheco hearings failed to deliver Microsoft’s desired result. But with Quinn’s departure, Brian Burke ramped up his lobbying promoting “an amendment to an economic stimulus bill that would largely strip the Massachusetts Information Technology Division of its decision-making authority.” The amendment was filed by Senator Michael Morrissey.
Louis Gutierrez, however, proved as uncompliant as his predecessor, and he banned Burke from his office. In a exchange of emails with Alan Yates, a general manager in the company’s information worker product management group, Gutierrez let his displeasure be known:
he had received a phone call from Gutierrez and that the CIO wasn’t happy. Yates wrote that he had spoken with Burke after Gutierrez called, “and ALL activity in and around the capitol building next week is now being canceled” [Computerworld]
Given Patrick’s grassrootedness, it seems unlikely that the Patrick administration will reverse the open standard initiated by the Romney administration. Politics may allow for strange bedfellows, but it is doubtful there is much room for Brian Burke’s lobbying interests. Among the people Burke is serving on Deval Patrick’s Technology Advisory Group is Massachusetts’ outgoing CIO Louis Gutierrez. I’m sure there’s no irony lost at the meetings. Besides, Burke “announced… at the first meeting of the new working group that he will be participating as a private citizen rather than a Microsoft employee.”