Tuesday, June 5, 2007


I have an extremely difficult time believing that any of the people who support requiring government entities to use OpenDocument file formats (ODF) instead of the corresponding Office versions have any motives other than: (1) stickin' it to big brother Microsoft, or (2) purely selfish financial reasons. Now, #2 I can completely understand. Obviously IBM and Sun want governments to pass laws that require government minions to use file formats that IBM and Sun back and sell software for. #1... whatever. There are legions of nerds who want nothing more than for Microsoft to fail. These people occasionally grow up and become IT managers and carry their weird vendetta with them to their position of power, which is somewhat disturbing, but oh well.

The reason that people who back these kinds of laws always give is that it's a way to ensure that documents written today can be read long in the future. It's impressive that people can write this without cracking up, even on the internet, because it's hilariously dumb. If you want your documents to be readable long in the future, the only logical choice is to either store them in a format that is plain text or trivial to convert to plain text, or to use a format backed by a large organization and already used in thousands of huge enterprises. There are trillions of dollars' worth of information stored in Office documents. It will never be hard to read those documents. It just doesn't make sense. As long as there is valuable data in those documents, there will be companies willing to sell you a way to open them. If Microsoft was blasted into oblivion by a nuclear missile this Friday (three-day weekend!), all its source code backups were destroyed, and the company ground into dust, there will still be people making viewers and converters for Office documents long after my dust is providing valuable nutrients to the daisies planted above me. Capitalism works.

And though no one will believe me, it has nothing to do with Microsoft being involved. I have some minor concerns with choosing a read-only format for storing even archival documents, but regardless, if we have to have an archival standard, PDF makes almost as much sense as the Office formats. PDF viewers generally suck, but PDFs are still ubiquitous. Microsoft's similar XPS format would be a poor choice because nobody uses it. Maybe someday, but certainly not today.

However, I don't think we need a mandate. The magic of capitalism, and just how file formats work, is that whatever people use becomes popular. Whatever is popular now will be supported forever. Perhaps in the past this was not necessarily true, but it is today. Perhaps you don't remember when JPEG files and GIF files were nontrivial to open. That's almost unbelievable today. Do you think that it's going to be hard to open JPEGs and GIFs in the year 2100? I don't.

If we do need a mandate, it's that documents aren't unnecessarily encrypted.

Anyone advocating mandates that only OpenDocument and its kin be used by government agencies does not have your interests in mind. They are acting completely for their own selfish reasons. That is, unless they truly believe that ODF is a logical choice, in which case they may be only insane. If either of those is true, I don't really want those people making policy decisions that affect me. Our government is clueless enough about technology as it is without any more batty nonsense like a file format mandate.

Currently listening: Rihanna—Umbrella


G said...

I see where you're coming from on this. But I rather enjoy the idea of the government embracing an "Open" standard embraced by not-for-profit open sourcers rather than a proprietary one controlled by a company with a need to make profit.

Money is a strange thing. It drives rational men to do irrational things. Having important government documents (if there really is such a thing) stored in a format that will never be subject to the throes of the market or the whimsies of a corporation anywhere in the near or distant future kind of comforts me.

Yet, I've got a libertarian streak in me. I'm okay without any mandates. Yet if mandate we must, I'd prefer it be open.

Travis said...

The things I say about how profit will motivate compatibility can also be applied to free open source projects, I think. I mean, OpenOffice can already be used to open the popular Office file formats. If there's a demand for commercial software to do a thing, there's almost certainly going to be a demand for free software to do the same.

Travis said...

(And I didn't even get into how "open standard" is nearly oxymoronic...)

Jordan said...

I agree with you.


If people are still using JPEG and GIF in the year 2100, I might have to come back from my grave and slap someone.

j said...

This post is good troll bait.

Has Microsoft made Office document viewers for *NIX? If so, please post a link here as they would be REALLY useful to have. If not, "fuck Microsoft".

"Capitalism works." This sentence is frightening, just sitting there like it is.

At any rate I really don't care. You make a good point: it doesn't matter. I would *prefer* that the software the government uses be free (in both the free-to-modify and free-like-air senses), but then I prefer that all software be free in these senses.

However, the amount of money involved is negligible. I'd much rather see (and therefore worry about) the disassembly of the military industrial complex than quibble over whether we the people should be paying for licenses of Microsoft Office and Windows.

Also, as is presently the case, the "Open" contenders for Office's throne are not compellingly better overall. I am not qualified to comment on the technical merits of their underlying formats, but there is no reason to believe that since something is "Open" it is necessarily better (e.g., HTML/CSS/DOM). This is just not the case. Likewise with something proprietary. The same is true for design-by-committee and one-man or small teams work.

So, while I find your binary motives overly simplistic (not that I think even you take them as exhaustive), I generally agree that no mandate is necessary.

Travis said...

There are no Microsoft-supplied Linux viewers or converters that I'm aware of. What would you want it to convert them to? HTML? ODF? Think people would actually come to a consensus? A viewer might be better, but the Word viewer is based on Word, and Word is Windows source code. It's generally Microsoft's position [disclaimer: I do not speak for my company in any fashion] that not enough people use Linux desktops to justify writing software for Linux. I generally agree, though for certain things I think it makes sense to extend Linux support. And, if the objective really is to keep locked into using Office formats, making a read-only viewer for Linux probably makes a lot of business sense. I don't think that's really an actual business motive, though.

I think I agree with everything after "At any rate." And while the post was not intended to be trollbait, I certainly recognized that it was probably going to be...

Travis said...

(And I definitely still stand behind my statement that people who want OpenDocument to be mandated a standard do not have anyone else's interests at heart besides their own.)

g said...

All very good points, except that many of the open-source proponents (nay: evangelists) I come across truly believe in the ideal of free software, and want to ensure access to information isn't completely controlled by giant corporations.

I simply don't think it's fair to say that 100% of people who would prefer ODF are in it for selfish motives.

Yet, even if it were true that 100% of open-sourcers are in it for selfish reasons, it doesn't detract from their argument, given that Microsoft would press for what would benefit itself from a selfish (profit-driven) stance.

Travis said...

Of course. And I fully believe in capitalism and doing things for profit.

I wrestled with the idea of evangelists who want all software to be free (communists). I don't really know what to think about them. I don't think they count, because they're unrealistic.

(Waves hands)