Microsoft recently made a substantial grant to the state of Massachusetts: US$30 million of software to high schools and universities. The grant is Microsoft programs, not cash, so it’s not as though the company is actually shelling out US$30 million. Still, that much software is significant for a small state, and it has led critics to look for an ulterior motive on Microsoft’s part—and some think that they’ve found it.
Massachusetts is currently a battleground state in the war between open and closed standards after the state CIO decided last year that only open formats would be used on government computers. The pedestrian-sounding decision actually touched off a firestorm of controversy when it became clear that Microsoft’s popular Office formats would be excluded from consideration. Though the government of Massachusetts is not one of Microsoft’s largest customers, the company would no doubt prefer that they not set a “bad example” for other states to follow. Massachusetts was initially planning to standardize on OpenDocument (used by OpenOffice.org, for instance), but currently seems more open to Microsoft formats now that the company has submitted Office XML as for approval as an ECMA standard.
Microsoft wasn’t the only party displeased by the proposed changes. Some Massachusetts legislators were unhappy with the fact that they had not been consulted in the decision and that the state’s IT department felt it had the authority to make such a change by itself. What resulted from this displeasure was an amendment that would have pulled much of this power away from the state CIO by requiring him or her to consult with a new government task force. The amendment was pulled from its original bill this week and many people assumed that it had died a quiet death. Given this situation, Microsoft’s enormous grant still looked sinister to some people, but only in the usual way: the grants were simply marketing designed to hook young kids on Microsoft software.
Andy Updegrove, a partner and co-founder of Massachusetts law firm GesmerUpdegrove LLC, has been following the entire ODF controvery from the start. He looks at the grant and asks, “So is this an effort to influence legislative behavior in an election year? And if it is, how does that square with the passage of the economic stimulus bill sans amendment? Why reward a state that failed to rein in an Information Technology Division whose policy on office formats Microsoft had by all accounts lobbied very aggressively against?”
His answer is that the mystery amendment has not died, it has simply been shuffled into a new state budget bill, and it may come up for a vote soon enough. If true, this means that Microsoft still has a chance to influence state legislators on this issue, and a grant of US$800 in software to each high school student in the state and US$2,400 to each college student is a pretty good way to ingratiate yourself with a perennially cash-strapped state government. Updegrove is careful to point out that Microsoft and other organizations make such grants all the time, and that Bill Gates should be commended for his commitment to both health and education. Still, he points out that the company has given the state only US$40 million over the preceding five years, so this is an unusually large grant that comes at a crucial time.
While all of this is interesting to speculate about, there may be a more pragmatic reason for the grant. Boston is home to the largest number of universities and university students in the United States, and these students are a prime market for Microsoft. While Massachusetts may be a small state, it’s a heavy hitter in the world of higher education, and Microsoft has a vested interest in getting such students familiar with their software. Microsoft may actually be more concerned about losing access to this market than it is over seeing OpenOffice.org on the desktops of state bureaucrats.