See What Being Nice Gets You?

In my last post here, I praised Microsoft for not being a bunch of arrogant boneheads. No good deed goes unpunished: When I posted my kind words last week, Microsoft was already back to playing its favorite game -- FUD-ball -- with its distinctive mix of strategic brilliance and gutter-sucking sleazeball tactics.
In my last post here, I praised Microsoft for not being a bunch of arrogant boneheads. No good deed goes unpunished: When I posted my kind words last week, Microsoft was already back to playing its favorite game -- FUD-ball -- with its distinctive mix of strategic brilliance and gutter-sucking sleazeball tactics.According to Microsoft, disabled workers prefer Microsoft Office, due to its ability to support assistive technologies. So far, so good: By almost any credible measure, Office does, in fact, support a variety of popular assistive-technology products. Over the past 15 years or so, this technology has improved life for millions of sight- or movement-impaired computer users, allowing them not simply to work, but to excel and to succeed in their chosen fields.

What relevance does this fact have on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' decision to adopt the open-source OpenDocument format, instead of the Microsoft-proprietary Office format, for use in state documents? None at all, unless you count the fact that Microsoft is counting on Massachusetts to suffer a fit of politically-correct cowardice and reverse its open-source technology stance.

In the first place, Massachusetts had already placed an exception in its policy mandating the use of OpenDocument file formats, allowing disabled government workers to license Microsoft Office for as long as they deem necessary to do their jobs. So in practice, that narrows down any potential problems to a single scenario: cases where disabled employees who still use Office need to access ODF-formatted documents.

Microsoft, of course, doesn't support the ODF format in Office 2003, and its official stance is that it won't add ODF support to Office 12, due some time next year. Apparently, Redmond's altruism gets a bit thin when it comes to disabled users of Office who might encounter, for whatever reason, one of the many ODF-formatted files that will begin to circulate over the next few years.

In fact, the way I see it, OpenDocument support in Office would itself qualify as an "assistive technology," allowing disabled users then to access these files with all of the other assistive technologies available for Office. Is this simply a difference of opinion, or is it an example of Microsoft cherry-picking cases where it can press-gang disabled workers into cheap propaganda campaigns? I gotta go with that second choice.

Then again, perhaps I'm being hasty: According to some of the sources I cited in my misguided air-kiss in Redmond's direction last week, a French firm has already created a prototype plugin adding ODF support to Office. In other words, there's no ODF "support problem" at all for disabled Massachusetts government workers, or at any rate, there won't be one in the very near future.

So: It's possible that Microsoft is simply lying like a cheap rug about this whole thing, instead of lying and saddling its disabled users with a problem that (to pick a random example) a French software firm could fix in a matter of weeks. The fact that the first possibility makes Microsoft look positively noble compared to the second one, by the way, is so far beyond pathetic that words fail me.

Either way, here's the bottom line: Microsoft's red-herring assault has the Massachusetts officials who support the ODF move, as well as many open-source advocates, in full bunker mode. I suspect that in at least some of these cases, the desire not to offend (read: condescension towards) disabled citizens has turned once-articulate adults into blubbering fountains of ass-covering platitudes. It doesn't help that some advocates for disabled workers continue to rail against a non-existent threat, no matter how sincere they may be: Cluelessness, as usual, does not discriminate.

No matter how it started, this sniveling needs to stop: Someone throw some cold water on these people and snap them out of it: There's work to be done here, and they're not helping.

Yesterday, as Sun Microsystems' Tim Bray noted on his personal blog, the company filed a statement for a Massachusetts Senate hearing on the state's ODF decision. In the statement, Sun corporate standards manager Douglas W. Johnson covers accessibility as just one of several important issues, yet he still does a great job of driving home some other key points about open-source software and accessibility.

Johnson's comments on the topic actually begin with the same point I made at the top of this entry: The accessibility tools available to Office users today are, in many cases, still the best ones around. They're also, however, the products of up to 15 years of development -- and in spite of this fact, Johnson notes, "the relevant proprietary products are expensive, brittle (in that even minor patches or upgrades often cause failures), and difficult to extend to other applications."

He also points out that open-source accessibility software, from Sun and many other sources, has been under development for several years and already shows both great promise and rapid improvement. In some cases, such as the Gnome-on screen keyboard and Dasher, which allows users to type 35 words per minute or more using only eye movements, Johnson notes that open-source software has already bested anything available from proprietary vendors.

If this already sounds like a better situation than Microsoft might lead you to believe, consider two more advantages open-source products offer disabled users: freedom of choice, in the form of quick and easy moves from one product to another; and freedom from the excessive financial burdens many disabled users face purchasing conventional assistive technologies.. Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen-reader software, for example, a highly-regarded product that offers excellent integration with Office, costs between $900 and $1,100 per copy, not including service agreements or the cost of Office itself. I have no problem -- none at all -- with Freedom Scientific's pricing scheme, or with Microsoft's for that matter. I do believe, however, that consumer demand and competition, not flimsy lies and political grandstanding, provide the most stable conditions for fair prices and quality products.

Right now, besides Microsoft's own employees and the usual sock-puppet crowd (here's ), the company counts as allies two individuals who can make life hard -- or, perhaps, impossible -- for OpenDocument and its advocates in the Massachusetts state government. A pair of sour-grapes Massachusetts politicians, one a state senator and the other its Secretary of State, are helping out Redmond's cause with pointless sideshows (such as yesterday's "fact finding" hearing), politically-motivated teeth-baring (the two politicos in question are Democrats, while the state's Governor and many of his appointees are Republicans), and an appalling mixture of mendacity and stupidity.

Like I said, there's work to be done here. Open-source supporters need to deliver the message, whenever and wherever necessary, that open-source software is the best way to protect and extend equal workplace opportunities for disabled American workers. More importantly, the Massachusetts officials responsible for implementing and defending the OpenDocument policy need to quit sniveling, swear off pointless apologies, and to politely frog-march Microsoft to the state line with an invitation to come back when it's ready to hit the competition with something besides mud.