The whole story surrounding Massachusetts former CIO Peter Quinn and
his decision to step down as CIO after his controversial decision to
adopt the Open Document Standard (ODF) for the state government really
bothers me. Not because I am surprised by the outcome, but because of
the precedent it sets and the chilling effect it will probably have on
decision-makers who might think about an alternative to Microsoft.
While I will freely admit I do not know all the grisly details involved
in the decision regarding the choice of ODF for the state, my research
tells me that some people felt the decision was made without enough
input from others, which resulted in a lack of buy-in among the
Whether this is true or not, it will be hard to ever know the complete
truth. Personally, I’m not sure you can get 100-percent buy-in on
anything, particularly in an organization as complicated as state
government. And I’m not sure that 100-percent buy-in would have solved
Quinn’s problems, because the decision he made was going to cost a
certain company a lot of money or was going have to change its software
to support a standard it didn’t create or want to support.
Anytime you make public decisions that are not only costly for a major
statewide vendor, but also can be viewed as an act of defiance, you are
looking for trouble. No company, (monopoly or not) is going to take
that one sitting down, and they are going to go down fighting or take
you down first.
While I thought that Mr. Quinn’s decision was bold and inspiring to
many open source proponents, it was in fact a declaration of war. Quinn
is a casualty of that war and it’s quite possible that Massachusetts’
ODF standard will become another casualty, even though the state says
it will implement it as planned.
So what is the lesson from this saga? That any attempt to implement
open standards in government is political suicide? The answer is maybe;
but it depends on how you go about it.
My personal philosophy on this one is that if you are going to go up
against such a powerful force, you either need bring an equally
powerful force with you, or you prepare to fight a guerrilla war.
For instance, had Mr. Quinn said that the state is going to become an
all-Oracle state, from backend to desktop; the tale might have ended
differently because you would have money fighting money.
On the other hand, if you aren’t about to swap out one huge major
software vendor for another, then in my opinion, you need to take a far
subtler approach. The first thing you do not do is blow your own horn
with a huge announcement. You need to keep quiet about it, and win the
hearts and minds of the populace without them even realizing you have
done it. The way to do it is not from the desktop, but from the back
office. Start with things the end user doesn’t see or care about: DNS
servers, Web servers, and the e-mail servers. They (the end users)
continue to use the same front ends–desktop and e-mail clients that
they are used to–while you start to exchange the plumbing out from
under them. Done correctly, this can happen without anyone noticing.
And if you do it during a period in which you have paid for a volume
license of the back end stuff, no one is the wiser (particularly the
software vendor whose tools you are replacing); you will reap your
savings later when you choose not to renew.
Later, you can turn your attention to replacing the file systems and
the database servers (if you choose to go whole hog). This is a bit
trickier because applications can depend on them, but it can be done.
Mind you, this process doesn’t happen overnight, but takes time and
Once you have liberated the back office, then the desktop is ripe for
the taking. By then you can document successful implementation and
usage over a period of time and also show the cost savings. Now, you
have ammunition and probably some fellow believers because you have
been working the steering committee all along–haven’t you?
As open source continues to make headway and increase awareness through
its adoption in private sector companies, it will become easier to
stick one’s neck out and make those far-reaching decisions. In the
meantime, it will take death by a thousand cuts rather than a frontal
assault should you wish to avoid political suicide and actually stick
around to see your plans come to fruition.