Back at it: Waldo brings Microsoft calling

Why was a bill that would merely have suggested that state agencies consider using freeware killed this session? That's what Charlottesville whiz kid Waldo Jaquith wants to know.

Although he's down in Blacksburg working on his degree at Virginia Tech, that doesn't mean he's lost his local political edge. In fact, he's up to his old tricks, and this time it appears he's rankled software behemoth Microsoft.

Jaquith, an entrepreneur, activist, and one-time city council candidate, wondered why state agencies shell out huge sums of money for commercial computer programs when they could get the same or better products for free. So he approached Delegate Mitch Van Yahres to see if he'd sponsor a bill encouraging the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) to give equal consideration to open source software, known as "freeware," which can be downloaded from the Internet.

Jaquith is no stranger to shaping public policy. He helped change federal law when he challenged corporate giant Mattel on an Internet filter to be installed on public computers. In the process, he allegedly became the first person to be subpoenaed by email.

And he's an expert on freeware, having used and created it for his own web development company, Munk & Phyber.

So when Jaquith suggested the new legislation, Van Yahres listened– and took action, sponsoring a bill requiring that freeware be considered along with commercial options.

Word of the bill may have reached the Seattle area. When the bill was introduced back in January, the General Assembly had some visitors. Jaquith says a Microsoft representative accompanied by five computer industry lobbyists descended on Richmond to deter delegates from passing the bill.

Though all six lobbyists were concerned, says Van Yahres– who met with the lobbyists– the Microsoft rep seemed "over sensitive." Van Yahres believes he saw an "element of fear" driving Microsoft's aversion.

Microsoft certainly has reason to fear government action. The federal antitrust case against Microsoft nearly brought the software giant to its knees, eating up years of time and costing millions of dollars.

Microsoft representatives did not return The Hook's calls by press time, but Tom McCrystal, owner of web design firm Creative Perspectives, says he understands.

"If I were working for Microsoft," says McCrystal, "I'd be really, really concerned."

Microsoft's SCC filings reveals that its "margins and growth rates are eroding," says McCrystal, a Republican who supported the bill and accompanied Democrat Van Yahres to his Richmond meeting with the lobbyists. While the Washington state-based corporate giant still has market supremacy, McCrystal says constant threats from competition make its position precarious. "I'm not sure I'd want to be in their position in the market," he says.

Judging by the open source bill's fate– it was "indefinitely passed over" in the Science and Technology committee by unanimous vote– Microsoft's powers of persuasion remain formidable.

But Van Yahres says although the bill was essentially killed, he's happy with the outcome.

While the state code remains unchanged, the Assembly sent an official letter to VITA pointing out the availability of freeware and reminding the agency that it is permitted to use such software whenever possible.

VITA spokeswoman Diane Horvath says there are already instances in Virginia government where freeware is in use. To make sure all agencies are aware of the option, however, VITA will soon add links to freeware in its procurement guide, used by all state government entities considering new software.

And for anyone wondering why freeware isn't mandated as a cost-saving measure (especially during the current budget crisis), Horvath says low cost doesn't always equal best value.

The agency must consider ease of interfacing with local and federal government as well as system maintenance, which is often part of the purchase price of a commercial program.

"We'd rather keep our options open," says Horvath.

Jaquith, however, fears that without a bill formalizing the freeware option, the Microsofts of the world will continue to curry favor through lobbying efforts.

He points out that Governor Mark Warner, a vocal supporter of freeware, continues to use a Microsoft Windows application for his website,

"That," he says, "tells me that VITA making a rule is insufficient."

Even in Blacksburg, Waldo Jaquith manages to affect public policy.