November 22, 2005

They'll fuck you at the drive-through

I was recently discussing the Massachusetts state government's decision to scrap proprietary document formats in favor of an open alternative with a colleague. He had just been to a hearing on Beacon Hill, in which a completely hostile state senator was barraging the Open Document proponents with Microsoft talking points. He indicated the completely laughable state of affairs that pertained there - Novell, Sun, IBM and co. had sent marketing types with some fairly ineffectual slides on why open formats were better. Microsoft had sent a local Beacon Hill professional lobbyist, who charges multiple thousands of dollars a month. He was sitting there doing business on his cell phone, sending out runners, etc. What he was doing became clear later; while his pet State Senator was reiterating his client's talking points for the media, and everyone on the 'Open Source' side of the fence was sitting in the hearing either listening or awaiting their turn in the hotseat, he was busily lobbying to get a modification made to another piece of legislation.

That modification, it turned out, will create a 'technology oversight committee' which will have the power to veto the decision to move to Open Document formats. It will be staffed by representatives from branches of state government other than the one which proposed this change. Surprise! Pay no attention to what this hand is doing behind the curtain.

My colleague described how, while he was chatting with this lobbyist, he noticed two interesting things. One, the lobbyist freely confided in him, "I don't know anything about computers." Two, as they stood in a hallway, every politician that passed stopped to shake the lobbyist by the hand and chat him up briefly.

In contrast, IBM sent a crew along with some talking points they'd put together in a boardroom in Armonk NY about why the technology was better.

Anyone want to guess where my money is on this fight so far?

What drives me crazy is that it doesn't have to be this way. The story on the Open Format vendors' side is considerable, even from a raw political sense. For fuck's sake, Novell is headquartered in Massachusetts. Sun and Novell both maintain a non-trivial number of jobs in the Boston area - especially compared to Microsoft. The 'local company' card could have been played easily. There are an enormous number of professional Linux and open source support consultants who would be eligible to support this initiative, and who directly vote. On the other side of the fence, there are the Microsoft distributors who fear a loss of addictive revenue if the state cuts back its support payments to the MS system.

Classic case of coordination vs. mass. Microsoft fought smart and did the efficient thing - find the most effective local lobbyist, who already has the ties to the political structure, and throw money at him. Let the other side argue about the technology until it's blue in the face; can anyone with any experience with Massachusetts politics honestly say that they believe this fight is about technology at the legislative level? If so, I have a bridge to sell them.

Posted by jbz at November 22, 2005 9:41 PM | TrackBack

Post a comment

Remember personal info?