Posts filed under ‘Open Standards’

Moving Away From Webmail: Why?

Back in the late 1990s, I encountered webmail services. I quickly signed up for accounts with every service I knew:

  • Yahoo! mail—sponsored by Yahoo!, which had a top-notch human-curated search engine directory
  • Mailexcite—later known as Excite mail—at that time sponsored by Excite and Webcrawler search engines
  • Hotmail—before it became a Microsoft property
  • and over time, various services that went by names like Warmmail, Coolmail, Coldmail, and CoolEmail—these services came and went and sometimes came back under completely different owners

What I liked about them was that I could go to the local college, the state college, or to friends’ homes and still check my e-mail without having to set up client software for each computer I used. This was before we knew a lot of the things we have learned about online security. Passwords were often restricted to 4-6 characters, often either all lower-case or all numeric.

If you forgot the password you used on site ‘X’, you would click ‘Send my password’ and check the relevant webmail account where the password would be sent.

Over time, things changed. Passwords started to require a mix of upper and lower case, along with one or more numeric digits. Then special characters were added. Passwords became longer. And ‘forgot my password’ started taking you through one or more secret questions before sending a password reset link to your e-mail. (No more mailing your password.)

It became more and more time consuming to log into a website, scroll through your new and existing messages to find the ones you choose to read, and write responses as necessary. This would be enough to make me switch back to the convenience of using client software to handle my e-mail messages (at the small cost of more complicated set-up than just typing a name and password into a couple of boxes on a webpage). But this is not even really the problem.

You see, in some areas, we have never advanced. We call it electronic mail, but it is really more like electronic postcards. This means that anyone, anywhere along the chain between you and the other party (or parties) could easily and quickly read your messages. That contract to buy a retirement property in Hawaii? Someone could have grabbed a copy, whipped out their word processor, and read everything in it. Same with that e-mail to your kid’s school about her grades. Didn’t you say they use Social Security numbers as student ID numbers?

You may say that you don’t do anything illegal and you don’t use e-mail to conduct financial transactions, therefore you have nothing to worry about. That is not so. You cannot know in 2012 whether information you “leak” today will become useful to someone who decides to use it against you in 2017 or 2022.

What is the answer? PGP. PGP (or Gnu Privacy Guard, which is a freedom-preserving implementation of OpenPGP). PGP puts your e-mail messages into an envelope, making it more difficult for someone to snoop on your message. Since the message is electronic, the envelope is also electronic, a type of public-key encryption.

Now, there are some who believe that anyone who encrypts data is doing it because they are doing something wrong or illegal. Those people are wrong. I personally believe that it is patriotic to encrypt your data. First of all, I do not believe that the government would have permitted its use if they had not figured out how to penetrate the encryption, if they are willing to devote enough time and computing power to do so. This means that encryption is not going to protect spying or terrorism. Our government will still be able to see what evil deeds such people are planning.

However, for unimportant people like you and I, people who may occasionally speed on the freeway, but do not otherwise break the law, the government is not likely to invest the effort. Our lives are too boring. There is nothing to be gained. I cannot imagine Jon and Ponch showing up at your door to write you a ticket because you admitted in an e-mail message that you drove 70 in a 65 zone.

I should point out that I have no evidence that our security agencies can read your encrypted messages. It is purely my opinion that they would still be trying to suppress PGP is some security agency had not figured out how to penetrate it. (Disclaimer: I work for a federal agency, but I don’t speak for them and they don’t speak for me.)

On the other hand, using encryption gives you some privacy. While I firmly believe the government can read your encrypted messages, the average computer criminal cannot. And more importantly, the casual observer who inadvertently is exposed to your message is not able to read it. The beat cop who is trying to make his quota cannot read it. The junior high kid down the street cannot read it.

So you and I should be using PGP (or the open source implementation, GPG) for most of our messages. Remember that an envelope only protects its contents in transit. If you’ve got the unencrypted contents sitting on your hard drive, or if the person on the other end has them, all that anyone has to do is gain access to that computer.

It is sometimes convenient to think of encryption like a vault. The locks on 1920s-era vaults probably would not slow modern criminals very much. The locks on current bank vaults are probably sufficient to slow down the majority of criminals long enough for the police to arrive. If you think encryption will protect your secret treasure map forever, you’re mistaken.

Now, once you decide to encrypt your e-mail, you’ll immediately be faced with two big issues. First of all, none of the big webmail providers supports using PGP through their websites. So unless you can get FireGPG working, you cannot do the prudent thing. Secondly, installing and configuring PGP/GPG is somewhat complicated. It isn’t really–some of the most tech-adverse people I know today set up similarly-complex software on their computers back in the 1990s–but it isn’t as easy as it could or should be.

Enter GPG4Win. GPG4Win comes with a lightweight mail client (Claws Mail), the GPG and Kleopatra and GPA software to manage the process from creating keys to uploading to public key to a keyserver to signing keys of others whom you know in person, a file encryption plugin (GpgEX), and an optional encryption plugin for Outlook. Mac users can use GPGTools instead of GPG4Win. BSD, Hurd, and Gnu+Linux users can use a somewhat less polished version or KDE’s Kleopatra.

Clearly, though, the process of using PGP and GPG needs to be simplified and streamlined. However, even in their current condition, you and I should be using PGP / GPG. And that means, given that the webmail providers have not figured out how to support it in their interfaces, that I need to pull back from using webmail for most of my messages.

I should also point out that you have to remember your passphrase, or you will not be able to use PGP / GPG. You should probably not create keys that are valid for more than a year or two. I am still learning about it, so I am by no means an expert. It just seems to me that if you forget your passphrase, you want a quick expiration, rather than waiting for years.

Monday, 2012-January-09 at 04:55 5 comments

Introducing LibreOffice, A New Branch Off Of OpenOffice

The Document Foundation – The Document Foundation

Our mission is to facilitate the evolution of the Community into a new open, independent, and meritocratic organizational structure within the next few months. An independent Foundation is a better match to the values of our contributors, users, and supporters, and will enable a more effective, efficient, transparent, and inclusive Community. We will protect past investments by building on the solid achievements of our first decade, encourage wide participation in the Community, and co-ordinate activity across the Community.

The Document Foundation is producing LibreOffice as the next evolution in the story. There have been some rumblings for quite a while about Sun’s (now Oracle’s) outsize role in OpenOffice. Oracle, of course, is more energetic about its pursuit of higher earnings than Sun was. Some would argue that Oracle is less friendly toward freedom-preserving software (“free / open source software”), and point to its activities around OpenSolaris and Java as examples of this.

I don’t see LibreOffice as a backlash against Oracle, and I wouldn’t want it to be spun that way. It is time for such an important FPS (freedom-preserving software) application as OpenOffice to have a vendor-independent foundation at the helm. Whether Oracle, Sun, IBM, or even Microsoft was the vendor, I’d still believe this is a timely thing.

The current version of LibreOffice is marked as beta, not for daily, real-world use. Being that it is primarily just the most-current version of OpenOffice code with some changes to remove names and trademarks, it should be okay. Still, I don’t generally run beta software, and I’m not advising that anyone else does either.

This is an opportunity for a big forward step. I hope that Oracle will recognize this and that it will assist The Document Foundation with this project–in particular, by transferring any needed “IP” to the foundation and by committing to follow the lead of LibreOffice–so that both they and everyone else can share in the rewards of having an independent foundation in control.

In the meantime, let us continue to find those few use cases where OpenOffice is less suited for the task at hand than the leading proprietary office applications suite. We can then help the Document Foundation to prioritize those areas. The important thing about non-profit community foundations is that they require active participation by members of the community. I intend to be there. How about you?

Hat tip: Roy Schestowitz’ blog.

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Wednesday, 2010-September-29 at 02:47

Denmark Chooses ODF Over OOXML

This is great news (hat tip, Darius Damalakas). Danish government institutions will be using ODF for their documents, not OOXML. Not that there aren’t improvements to be made in ODF-producing and ODF-consuming applications (and the standard itself). Even so, it is gratifying to see user-friendly, constituent-friendly choices being made by government agencies.

I wish that American governmental agencies were more concerned about their users and constituents (rather than maintaining a close relationship with a particular vendor). I’m certain that some agencies here would also make the same choice. Not all of them, by any means, but certainly some of them.

If you are aware of a state or federal agency that is thinking about the file formats of their future, I encourage you to contact them and request that they use ODF as their canonical format, even if they also utilize a secondary format (e.g., OOXML, WPD).

Tuesday, 2010-February-09 at 03:32 1 comment

MSOffice 2007 SP2 Lands 2009-APR-28

Office 2007 SP2 Nears, Office 2010 Details Revealed

Let’s start with the second service pack for Microsoft Office 2007. It will arrive on April 28, and will pack a number of changes that will make a lot of people very happy. The biggest feature is support for the OpenDocument Format, across the board. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint can now all edit, save, and create documents in version 1.1 of the OpenDocument Format (.odt/.ods/.odp). In addition, SP2 will include full support for PDF files, meaning you no longer have to download a separate plug-in. All I can say is: finally. Was that so hard, Microsoft?

The news is all across the Web. Built-in support means that no one will have to create a username/password to download Sun’s ODF plugin for MS Office or track down Clever Age’s ODF Converter add-in either. A number of us are eager to see and try this. There are still concerns about infecting ODF with proprietary extensions or “intellectual property” that must be licensed before use, so we’ll get to see just how much Microsoft desires to interoperate with other software vendors.

SP2 will also add XPS and PDF support to the product. This has long been a frequently-requested feature in many organizational environments. I have this price list to send to potential customer X, but I don’t want him to change it. How can I get this as a PDF? Instead of saying “print it and then scan it”, support staff will be able to point users to the PDF export feature of their office software. Unfortunately, this does not include MS Office 2003, which just recently dropped off the support list for most users.

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Thursday, 2009-April-16 at 18:26

Texas Trying Again

Texas is once again considering legislation that would select open standard data formats (and software that could use them) for state-produced documents.

Fort Worth legislator pushes for open format in state documents | Fort Worth |

Michael Coté, an Austin-based technology analyst specializing in open-source software, said tying government documents to a proprietary vendor creates the risk that those files may be unreadable in the future as software evolves and companies go out of business. Open-source formats such as OpenDocument are “vendor-neutral,” meaning they work with multiple programs and can more likely be accessed in the future, Coté said.

“If the Constitution was in WordPerfect 5.1 format, it would probably be difficult to read right now,” Coté said, referring to an obsolete but once widely used word processing format.

Veasey filed a similar bill in 2007. It got national attention from technology journalists and bloggers but went nowhere largely because of aggressive lobbying by Microsoft, he said.

At a hearing on the bill then, Microsoft national technology officer Stuart McKee described it as anti-competitive and warned that it could be the equivalent of the state “picking Betamax when everyone else goes with VHS.”

Passage is far from assured, of course. Many people freak out at the thought that they might lose the ability to use the leading proprietary office suite. On top of that, the leading proprietary vendor has an accomplished lobbying team that seeks to crush any move that could threaten their dominance. I also think that talking about it in terms of licensing costs is the wrong issue. The state will want to buy StarOffice or WordPerfect for the support, rather than just downloading OpenOffice. So licensing costs may go down,

Personally, I think the bill’s opponents are missing the point. A Microsoft that was totally committed to open standard data formats / file formats (not "open source" file formats) and network protocols would indeed face more competition. They might find it difficult to maintain some of their pricing and lose some market share. But this would not only benefit consumers and the states, it would make Microsoft a leaner, stronger, more nimble competitor. For me, at least, supporting such bills is not about trying to hurt Microsoft, because my ideal world has MSFT being one of a group of leading competitors. Ideally, my work environment would have two or three different vendors' applications, so that when a user got too frustrated with one product, we could just switch him/her to a different one.

I realize that a level playing field is scary to Redmondites. But this fear will be replaced by the same kind of thrill that athletes feel in the midst of a game. If I were Mr. Ballmer, I would come to Texas and say, “We’re planning to support ODF anyway. Go ahead and pass this. We think we can make our products good enough that you will choose us most of the time anyway.” Unless, of course, he really doesn’t believe his company' products are that good.

To track the bill, check the Texas Legislature site. Thanks to Rick Jeliffe for the link to the story.


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Saturday, 2009-March-28 at 15:49

ODF Continuing To Move Forward At OASIS

According to Rob Weir, ODF is making good progress in OASIS:

It was a good year in OASIS as well, for ODF. The ODF TC, which I co-chair, created a new Subcommittee to investigate ODF-Next requirements, and we created a new OASIS TC, to join with the existing ODF TC and ODF Adoption TC, to work on “Interoperability and Conformance”. We also saw a substantial increased in participation in the ODF activities, spurred by the increased demand for ODF and the increased maturity of ODF implementations.

He lists some of the ways in which 2008 was an active year for the OASIS ODF TC, ending with this statement: “So 2008 was a good year, with robust participation from a wide range of stake holders in the development, maintenance and promotion of ODF in OASIS. I’m hoping for even greater participation and accomplishment in 2009, in spite of less-than-rosy economic conditions.”

It is good to have a progress report.

Wednesday, 2009-January-28 at 16:34

Germany Moving To ODF in 2010

The Federal Government of Germany [has decided] to implement use of the OpenDocument Format (ODF). According to the plan, German federal agencies will be able to receive, read, send and edit ODF documents beginning no later than 2010.

Germany Joins Growing Ranks of Governments Adopting ODF | Open Document

It is encouraging to see the continued onward march of truly open standards in the face of corporate influence. I am looking forward to seeing renewed proposals to standardize on ODF here in California, in Texas, and other states.

To be sure, some issues remain to be solved. How can the government continue to make use of existing software and processes with the new formats? Which documents presently stored in older formats should be converted to the new formats? How should the conversion be accomplished? And most importantly, which copy (old format or new) is now the legal record?

Truth be told, these same issues were already ahead. Remembering that the market-leading office software changed file formats in the 2007 version, every government agency, world-wide, should be asking these very same questions about now. One does not know how long support for the former formats will be available in the market leader’s products. It wasn’t too long ago that a “security” update removed support for older versions of those same formats. (Which was a lot of fun for those of us who support users. Suddenly, they had documents/spreadsheets/presentations that they had been using for years, but they could no longer open. After some outcry, the vendor released a fix that rolled back the changes, but we had to manually apply it.)

The point is, government documents are the property of the people. Proprietary formatted documents, even those which are supposedly open (but really proprietary formats in drag) require citizens to purchase the proprietary product or face a loss of fidelity. In some cases, the document may be unreadable without the proprietary vendor’s product.

This is why we must continue to work to spread openness throughout government.

Open source, open standards, open government. It just works better.


Friday, 2009-January-09 at 10:23

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