OpenDocument in Massachusetts: War of the Words

Posted by dcparris on May 22, 2006 7:35 AM EDT
Lxer; By DC Parris
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  LXer Feature: 22-May-06

Linux News wonders if The Heartland Institute's Steven Titch is a fan of Orson Welles. Find out what his article, "The Dangers of Dictating Procurement" has in common with the 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds".

War of the Worlds

As I was reading the article, The dangers of Dictating Procurement by The Heartland Institute's Steven Titch, I was reminded of the 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds". In that year, Orson Welles took a work of fiction originally authored by H.G. Wells, and transformed it into one of the most effective radio dramas in history. Similarly, The Heartland Institute's article is a work of fiction authored with the dramatic flair of an Op-Ed piece. Readers need to understand the difference between entertainment and information.

I wasn't around in 1938, but I have certainly heard and read about the infamous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. Just in case you happen to be less in tune with history than I am, 1938 was the year that Orson Welles orchestrated a broadcast of "War of the Worlds" that caused fear and mayhem for many Americans. You see, Welles interspersed a series of "newscasts", as if interrupting the regular radio programming, as a way of "telling the story". The problem was that many people missed the introduction of the broadcast, and thought the newscasts were real. If you've ever seen Saturday Night Live, you'll know that the old newscast ploy is still around today. Even some commercials are set as "newscasts". Most of us know it isn't really the news the moment we see it.

Those who have not been keeping up with the OpenDocument format decision in Massachusetts may have missed the introduction to Steven Titch's article, and thus might mistakenly assume that his opinions are based on valid information. Titch didn't write the introduction himself; it has been written over the course of the last several months. You know, the more I think about it, the more I am beginning to believe that Titch is a huge fan of Orson Welles. When you consider that Titch took old fiction written by Microsoft and gave it new life, in the form of a so-called "thinktank's" opinion, you have to admire how well he mimics his mentor's style. Welles should be flattered.

I was actually looking to see if I could find any direct ties between Microsoft and The Heartland Institute when I ran across this little jewel:
"The Heartland Institute is a nonprofit organization that publishes outreach publications designed to make public affairs interesting and entertaining. We operate a clearinghouse for the work of nearly 300 think tanks and advocacy groups."
Take note of the "interesting and entertaining" bit. Titch's article gives new meaning to the phrase. I am not aware of a direct connection as yet, but as I said in my response to Titch's article, the Institute is definitely friendly towards them.

Re-casting the Debate

The original issue was that the state had asked that vendors be willing to use an open document standard. Microsoft had the opportunity to adopt the OpenDocument format, which was being standardized, or offer their own open standard. Microsoft has been crying the old "unfair competition" card ever since. Titch's article is essentially an attempt to recast the debate in terms favorable to Microsoft. When you read the whole article, you get the feeling of a battle between IBM and Microsoft, and between FOSS and non-free software. That means the setting has changed. Suddenly, we no longer have a report about Microsoft's unwillingness to meet the request of a sizable customer, but a report about IBM versus Microsoft.

Let's be clear. Peter Quinn had been raising the specter of adopting open standards in document formats for the Massachusetts ITD for quite a while. Microsoft had the opportunity to adopt a document format that was already well on its way to becoming a formal standard. They chose not to. In fact, they even failed to open their own format - something that had been an option all along - until the decision was made and they were off the approved vendors' list. In other words, Microsoft showed no interest in meeting their customer's request, but rather fought to keep the customer on a short leash, locked into non-free document formats. One wonders how "open" Microsoft's current XML document license would have been, if not for Peter Quinn.

Microsoft went so far as to claim that implementing the OpenDocument format in Microsoft Office would be costly and difficult. The problem with such a statement, for Microsoft, is that it is essentially an admission that they are incompetent when it comes to implementing fully documented, freely licensed XML formats. Sun offered guarantees on the freedom of the OpenDocument license, while Microsoft's own XML license offers less freedom and comes with too little in the way of guarantees.

Re-framing the Debate

Titch also attempts to re-frame the debate by twisting the terminology. Notice his opening line:
"A Massachusetts directive that mandates use of an open source software format electronic document storage marked a major victory for the open source movement."
This is actually what first caught my attention. Massachusetts mandated an open document format that happens to be supported by both, open source and non-free, programs. At the time, Microsoft's own format was deemed non-compliant because, well, it did not meet the definition. Secondly, the mandate would have to be called a victory for the public because, for the first time in ages, the government would have the means to ensure a competitive field for all vendors, as opposed to the current trend of using one single company simply because that's what everyone else uses.

Titch's article ignores the fact that Microsoft was really fighting to quash competition in Massachusetts because they know they cannot compete on innovation and services. Microsoft depends on a lack of competition in order to survive. That's why the FOSS community poses such a major threat to Microsoft; they can't very well go and buy the Free Software Foundation. Given a standard, such as OpenDocument, any company - including Microsoft - can easily and cheaply implement the standard, and thus be able to compete without fighting the old "we need to be able to open documents in the XYZ format" argument. The only real reason some companies today still use Microsoft Office is because they feel trapped.

One LXer reader pointed out the negative connotations in the word "dictating" as another ingenious device of Titch's fictional article. The word "dictating" is meant to inspire negative emotions. Yet, when I go to the ice cream shop and "dictate" that I want chocolate, I am not referred to as a dictator - I am a customer making a request. Likewise, the Massachusetts made a request - a legitimate one at that - that vendors prepare to adopt or develop document formats that can be implemented by anyone, thus opening the door to competition to a wide array of FOSS and non-free software vendors.

Just as Welles' dramatization occurred in the context of interrupting a regular radio program, Titch weaves a few facts throughout his otherwise fictional opinion piece. Recasting the setting and re-framing the debate in the context of a few factual tidbits are certainly marks of brilliant fiction. When combined with re-telling the story through the device of an Op-Ed article one can imagine how easy it would be for some to believe they are reading reliable information from a "thinktank", and not a work of fiction.

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