I'm fresh from the US Public Sector CIO Summit - it was an amazing week and I had some truly enlightening conversations and experiences. Everyone I spoke with had very positive perceptions and feedback on Microsoft’s strategy - but I happened to come across Matt Asay's blog comments, "Software industry's false choice for governments," where he articulated a different perspective.

I'm not sure what conference Matt attended, but I think he may have missed a significant portion of the CIO Summit’s theme. Just about every discussion at the Summit focused on openness and interoperability, and the importance of providing choice to enable government innovation. Granted, my viewpoint may be a bit biased given my employment with Microsoft – but I had several discussions with customers and partners who had a similar experience and perspective.

I wanted to address some of the points that Matt outlined in his post (note: lines copied directly from Matt’s post here are indented and italicized. I’ve included the entire post, in segments, to avoid the perception of taking things out of context):

At Microsoft's Public Sector CIO Summit this week, Microsoft is promising governments "choice," a theme normally reserved for the freedom-loving open-source set.

I actually took a little personal offense to this. First, choice has been one of Microsoft's strongest messages for years (and something that I take very seriously) - so I think positioning that theme as something only geared towards open source advocates is a misrepresentation. Second, there is the implication that those of us who are working with Commercial software are not "freedom-loving" - which I see as a tremendous personal affront. I've worked with thousands of developers in my career - Commercial, Open Source, and everything in-between - and I can tell you that we all value freedom equally.

Next, from Matt’s post:

But Microsoft's "choice" campaign is all about giving governments the option to step into the Google-blessed cloud realm without leaving the comfort of their Windows/Office/etc. environments. For some, and perhaps many, this may be just the sort of safe choice they're seeking.

It's not as if the Google alternative is ipso facto better.

After all, while Google and other cloud application providers talk about unshackling governments and enterprises from the constraints of hardware and software licenses, this newfound freedom comes at a price. Microsoft's proprietary file formats, for example, are bad for enterprises looking to switch to alternatives like Google Apps or OpenOffice, as two municipalities in the Netherlands discovered to their hurt, but the potential for lock-in is arguably much worse in the cloud.

Again, Matt has missed the point here, which was a key message from the summit. “Unshackling” governments and enterprises from on-premise software (which is an arguable point itself – in many cases, existing platforms and licensing is the absolute best value for government customers… but I’ll save that for another post) and then putting them in a position where they are completely stuck in the cloud with no alternatives is a BAD idea. In many cases, the cloud will not make sense for certain applications... for others, it'll be a slam dunk.

Microsoft is providing the ability for governments (and other organizations) to choose, for themselves, which on-premise solutions make sense for them, as well as which cloud solutions will work for them (both private and public clouds). At the same time, Microsoft is actively building in support for open standards, protocols, and interoperability to help customers build a bridge to their future state, and also to help minimize the risk of vendor lock in.

Microsoft or Google or any other platform vendor shouldn't be telling customers where they need to run their solutions... the customers should be able to choose based on their needs. Microsoft provides this freedom... I don't quite understand why anyone would have a problem with that.

As for proprietary file formats, Microsoft has had XML file formats based on Office Open XML in Office since around 2002 (and even an ODF converter that's been available since 2007). I understand the point about older, legacy formats – but certainly Matt can applaud Microsoft’s support of open standards and open formats in Office as more than a “false promise.”

Matt continued:

That is, unless vendors provide open-data guarantees. Google has thus far committed to open data through its Data Liberation Front and other guarantees.

Governments are going to want to see those guarantees in writing.

First, in terms of “data liberation” – this is precisely one of the benefits that we, and our customers, get from our use of open standards and interoperable protocols. For example, data that is stored in Windows Azure (Microsoft’s cloud platform) is exposed via open standards and protocols (HTTP, XML, REST, etc.) – so can be accessed, moved, removed, and managed however customers see fit. Heck, we even built an SDK for Java developers to help them get to the data (http://www.windowsazure4j.org/).

And we actually take it further than that. We provide our written commitment for our Open Specifications, as Matt asks, in our Open Specification Promise: (http://www.microsoft.com/interop/osp/default.mspx).

But we’ve even gone further than that in terms of a commitment to privacy and proper use of the data. You can find written statements from Microsoft in our Trustworthy Computing document (http://go.microsoft.com/?linkid=9694914 – look for the “Privacy Principles” sidebar), as well as some additional written statements on Privacy in Cloud Computing here (http://www.microsoft.com/privacy/cloudcomputing.aspx).

Matt then commented:

After all, there is a fundamental tension between calls for open government and cloud computing, a tension that Gartner's Andrea DiMaio calls out. These are resolvable, of course, but only as citizens (and the governments who serve them) demand open data, open formats, open standards, and, yes, open source.

And it is exactly these tensions that demonstrate the value of choice for customers. In some cases, choice is influenced by legislative or compliance issues - isn't it best to provide options to customers who are constrained by such reasons?

The demand for open data, open formats, and open standards should be relevant across all platform environment choices - on-premise to public cloud. Open data, formats, and standards won't help anyone if they can't use the platform that supports them (i.e., if a vendor only provides a cloud solution but regulation requires an agency to host the solution on premises – that agency won’t get the benefit of open data, etc.).

We (Microsoft) believe in open data, open formats, and open standards... and we also believe in giving the customers the choice of where to run their applications. This is fundamentally a GOOD thing.

On the issue of open source...  to me, it's completely orthogonal to the discussion. Both Commercial and Open Source software are perfectly valid options for the development of government solutions from practical and ideological standpoints. I work very closely with many commercial software developers who feed their families by building superb solutions that enable government openness and transparency. These developers provide a vast array of solutions that, along with open source solutions, give governments and other organizations a tremendous amount of choice. They, and their solutions, are just as valuable to open government as open source developers and software (and frankly, I think that the attempt to associate open source directly with open government is a bit gratuitous).

And that brings me to Matt’s contradiction:

At its core, of course, real choice comes out of free markets, not software licenses. Competition creates choice....

The answer is not government mandates for open source, per se, but rather procurement guidelines that demand open source (for on-premises deployments), open data (for cloud deployments), and open standards (for both cloud and on-premises deployments) at least be considered, and probably given preference. In other words, a requirement for real choice, not the false choice proprietary software and clouds offer.

Matt is saying that the choice comes from free markets... but in the next paragraph states that governments should mandate procurement preferences for open source software. Such preferences are completely counter the idea of free markets, and therefore would provide LESS choice.  Net net: Not a good idea.

The best model: let the CUSTOMERS decide what software is best for them based on their business needs and the value/ROI the software provides – and have a level playing field that gives them as much choice as possible.

In addition, the CUSTOMERS should decide whether they should run their solutions on-premise, or in a Cloud, or both, based on their business (as well as regulatory and compliance) needs.

I believe that Matt’s core point is that, in order to have truly open governments, you need to provide more than a choice of platforms to host solutions – you ALSO need a commitment to standards and interoperability that will enable integration and mitigate issues of vendor lock-in.

I agree with him 100% - and had he seen more of the CIO Summit, I believe that he would have found that this is EXACTLY what Microsoft is doing.

An example from my own small piece of the world: my team has released the Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI) – which enables governments (and other organizations) to publish data to Windows Azure, and then exposes that data through open standards and open formats (HTTP, XML, REST, ATOM, JSON, oData, etc.). In addition, we released the .NET code as open source to CodePlex – so anyone can download and use the code to run their own instance on Azure… and we’re working on a PHP version to demonstrate even greater openness and interoperability.

This project, which was highlighted at the CiO Summit, took a tremendous amount of time and effort from some very dedicated developers, and I believe it will provide real, tangible value to government agencies and other organizations. Given their hard work and our specific goal of providing an open, interoperable solution that enabled choice - I get a little ruffled when I see someone refer to it as a “false promise.”

Net net: A the CIO Summit, Microsoft’s strategy was articulated as:

  • Providing choice for agencies through a platform strategy that spans on-premise datacenters, hosted environments, private clouds, and public clouds
     
  • Protecting that choice through a commitment to open standards, protocols, and formats

Frankly, I think this is precisely what Matt’s asking for (and I hope I can help him realize this, one day)… and I believe that this strategy absolutely will provide REAL CHOICE and REAL VALUE for government agencies.

-Dan