2008: The Year of Open Document Formats?

Sunday, 2008-January-13 at 22:04

Watching the Web recently, it seems that open standards for document formats are the issue of 2008. I think this is a good thing, but it does present some key challenges for those of us who promote openness.

First of all, there are several different models and ideas about openness, and we need to be careful to distinguish between them.

  1. Open standards — standards that are openly developed, openly and thoroughly specified, vendor-independent, and implementable by any and all competitors. Some of the issues with an open standard include whether a recognized standards organization has custody of the standard, whether the standard depends upon a particular (hardware or software) environment, whether there are any "intellectual property", licensing, or legal restrictions that could complicate implementation of the standard, whether the standard is compatible with pre-existing standards, whether competing vendors can actually implement the standard, and whether the leading vendor in that market is willing to cooperate with the standard. Open standards enable multiple vendors to produce products that are more or less compatible, which often results in a larger market (unit sales), lower prices, and more choices for their customers. The controversy surrounding Microsoft / Ecma International’s OOXML (ECMA 376) has helped to highlight many of these points.
  2. Free / libre and open source software (FLOSS) — software that is released under any of certain licenses (OSI approved licenses, FSF approved licenses), meeting certain standards (OSI standards, FSF standards) much of which is developed using open processes. In some sense, any FLOSS software application’s file formats are open formats, because it is possible to work out the format by examining the software source code.
  3. Free culture, often personified by the Creative Commons movement and Wikimedia. This is based around returning control of cultural and scientific information to society in general, instead of concentrating control in the hands of corporations. To quote CC’s purpose statement, "We use private rights to create public goods: creative works set free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them — to declare ‘some rights reserved.’"[1] Likewise, Wikimedia Foundation’s purpose statement includes "The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free content license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally."[2] Incidentally, Wikipedia and its sister sites are adding support for printing and word processing using open standard file formats (PDF and ODF), which should open even more of their content to users — now as reusers and not merely consumers of the content.
  4. Social freedom movements, which seek to promote civil liberties for individuals, as well as to oppose oppression against individuals and people-groups around the world. These groups tend to oppose the concentration and misuse of power within governments and corporations. Looking at recent history in the United States, I think they have been less than effective here, but I expect that to start changing this year. Often, a local manifestation of social freedom activity is open government or open meetings acts and financial reporting requirements. These come from the idea that government should represent the interests of the people it serves, and that the best way to ensure this is to require that most decisions be made in public, where improper attempts to influence decisions can be observed and stopped.
  5. Open file formats — file formats that are openly specified (and reasonably complete) and designed to facilitate interchange between computers that may or may not be using different applications. A good open file format is also an open standard, while a pseudo-open file format can be a tool used to make competitors look inferior in order to grab market share from them. I wrote an essay last year about open file formats legislation (AB1668) that was being considered by the California legislature. The Orange County Register agreed.
  6. Open network protocols — these are used for network communication and transfer. An open protocol is (again) openly specified and reasonably complete, and is designed to facility information interchange between different computers which may or may not be using the same software. A good open network protocol is also an open standard (such as an IETF RFC), while a poor one may not be complete or specified enough to enable anyone to implement it. A pseudo-open protocol can be used to make competing operating systems and applications look inferior in order to grab market share from them.

Combining #1 with #5, we get open standard file formats.

One of the biggest stories of the past couple of years has been the way that Microsoft ignored all outsiders to create its Office Open XML (OOXML) file formats full of gooey secret sauce, then dumped the fully-formed and essentially unchangeable formats on Ecma’s doorstep for standardization. This format is essentially a subset of the formats implemented for Microsoft Office 2007, so Ecma was really constrained in what changes it could make. Ecma then flipped the formats over to ISO for fast-track standardization, stirring up a hornet’s nest of opposition. The Not-so-open XML formats fail reasonable standards of openness (including those above), which forces Microsoft to oppose any attempt to use such standards for choosing software.

Next month is the ballot resolution meeting, where Microsoft and Ecma will propose changes to OOXML in order to convince member national bodies to vote to approve OOXML as an ISO standard. Since the kinds of changes that will actually make OOXML an open format would completely change the character of the format, it is not likely that the proposed changes will be enough. I hope that ISO hands Ecma a pink slip over this one.Expect a lot of politicking, including deceitful promotional material, to come out over the next month.

Remember, an open standard file format is not the same thing as open source, although a truly open format should have one or more open source implementations. Likewise, good government requirements for using open standard file formats are not requirements to avoid the use of any particular vendor’s products–an open standard format can be implemented by anyone that has the skill and the time to do so. If your vendor cannot figure out how to implement a format that is openly specified, how can you be sure they can implement anything else?

Remember also that "choice of standards" means confusion for end users (consumers) and prevents the interoperability that they crave. When a state employee asks how to open a file sent by a county employee using a different brand of software,this is choice of standards. Choice of applications, on the other hand, means that the products of multiple vendors understand the same formats, so that users do not have to care what brand of software was used to create the document / spreadsheet / presentation. When you go to a Web site and it opens whether you are using Internet Explorer or Firefox or Opera or Safari, you are seeing open standard file formats (choice of applications) in action.

Thanks to the wildly popular XO computer from the OLPC educational organization, schoolchildren around the world are learning to use open standard file formats. We already know that switching to formats such as OpenDocument Format is a rational choice, even if there is some short-term pain, just because of the long-term benefits they bring. Many users have resisted switching because ODF is unfamiliar. Well, a generation of future engineers, scientists, politicians, and doctors will learn on the XO, and will not have irrational preferences for closed proprietary formats.

As Western computer owners / users replace their existing computers and software, they will find that they face similar short-term pain with OOXML, without the long-term benefits to be gained. As we continue to bring the concept of open standard file formats to the forefront, people will begin to consider this in their purchasing decisions. We need to bring it so forcefully forward that even the pointy-haired bosses begin to request ODF compatibility in their companies’ purchases. We’ll really know we’ve made an impact when the generic software included with low-price computers along with the cheap "we’re compatible" office software in the office superstores promotes its compatibility with ODF and other open standards.

Besides, it seems that a good portion of the office applications software suite is moving to the Web, where such sites as Google Docs and Zoho are more or less ODF-compatible.

The challenge is to avoid being portrayed as some kind of nutzo extremists. Just as they did with the AB1668 hearings, leading vendors will try to say that they represent "the American way" and that openness advocates are anti-social throwbacks to the 1960s and 1970s, burning draft cards and bras, while munching on granola and wearing Birkenstocks.Our neighbors and coworkers need to see that we are normal people, just like them, who wish to smooth out some of the speed bumps that slow down data interchange and hinder long-term data preservation. They need to see that we are seeking our children’s (and their children’s) best interests when we insist that their schools stop teaching how to use a specific brand and version of software, instead teaching the general principles that apply to all brands, and offer to give the schools and their students free CDs of OpenOffice or Symphony. They need to see that we are helping poor and rich alike when we insist that our local governments standardize on ODF and other open standard file formats.

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