Are file formats just an “academic” issue?

Thursday, 2006-December-21 at 13:57

There are some who feel that file formats are an important issue—so important that they are willing to lobby governments and standards organizations to select the format or formats that best suit their particular agendas.  I must confess to being one of those people.  To me, file formats are one of the three or four most important issues in software right now, right along with licensing, patents, and whether my software or its data is 'TUR'd

TUR
Technological Usage Restrictions, often euphemized as DRM (digital rights management).  This refers to the use of technological means to limit the ways that someone can use software, music, video, or other files that are infected with TUR.

Now, even IT Business has weighed in with an article about the way that China's endorsement of the UOF formats and the compatibility work being done to ODF to make ODF and UOF interoperable will make it easier for users to get access to their data files, even after they no longer have the application that created the data.  The article includes a reference to the nasty political fight that hit Massechusetts after they decided that public agency documents needed to be in a format that was open and accessible to constituents regardless of the software that they owned.  ODF was the only editable set of file formats identified at the time that met the criteria.

The debate over document formats, and who has the power over them, has far more than merely academic relevance. Even IT users who don’t care much for open source can realize the value of having a truly open format that is controlled by users rather than vendors. Only in IT do the makers of the tools have so much power over the finished product. Use of old vendor-made "standards" has led to situations in which users can’t access their own files because they don’t have the old tools anymore.

Andy Updegrove is exploring the standards-making process at ECMA, the European Computer Manufacturers Association.  It seems that choosing a standards body to present your proposed standard to is a bit like a lawyer's judge-shopping.  Some groups are harsher and some are more pliable.

This might reasonably lead one to conclude that Ecma placed a high value on acquiring the OOXML project at the outset, when the Programme of Work for the Technical Committee was written. That Programme, you may recall, was not to create a standard for office productivity software formats, but instead:

To Produce a formal Standard for office productivity documents which is fully compatible with the [Microsoft] Office Open XML Formats.

For a person such as myself, who does not have a product in this battle, why is it so important?  Is this really just some abstract preference issue, or is it something practical, which may affect software users in general?  I lean toward the idea that this is something that will affect us all.  We know that a large company in the Northwest has a stake in assuring that users have to purchase only their products in order to utilize their older data.  The problem with this is that there already instances where the only way to reliably access data saved with older versions of said company's products is to use the reverse-engineered functionality designed into products such as OpenOffice.org.  So we already know that what is good for Microsoft is not what is good for the users of the software.

MSFT has admitted that their competing format, OOXML, is designed to describe the internal data structures of current and recent versions of their own software, which will make competitors' work adapting such formats for their own products more difficult.

The Office XML reference schemas describe in XML the basic data structures that have been in use in Microsoft products for over a decade. A significant part of the usefulness of the schemas comes from the fact that they enable backward compatibility with documents using older Microsoft Office formats and thus enable customers to transform their existing documents to XML. In other words, we did not start creating the Office XML schemas from a blank slate

I currently work for an agency that has many years of legacy data saved in proprietary file formats.  If, for instance, we suddenly needed to open some files from version x, from many years ago, we could be in some trouble if our current version of the suite could not handle it. [Personal opinion redacted.]  This is all the more reason that public agencies and their contractors, educational agencies and their contractors, small businesses and those who do business with small businesses, and non-profit agencies should all be actively endorsing ODF and requiring any recipient of their funds to utilize ODF for all documents exchanged with said entity.

Entry filed under: Computers, ODF, Software. Tags: .

Get Started! (#1 In A Series) XML-based File Formats: Good or Bad?


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