Everybody's Guide to OpenDocument

by Marco Fioretti

A lot of misinformation about the OpenDocument digital format has started to appear in the mainstream media and interest groups. Answers to many questions on the topic already have appeared, but they are written by techies for techies. This article is different, however. You can print out this one and pass it on to everyone, regardless of their computer skill level.

What Is this About?

Everybody watching CNN uses a lot of technologies first developed for, and as a result of, space exploration. The scientific data and engineering know-how collected in those first space missions are extremely valuable knowledge that should remain available forever.

Unfortunately, storing valuable data inside computers is no guarantee of its availability. Did you know that scientists "couldn't read magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking landings on Mars?... With the data in an unknown format, [they] had to track down printouts and hire students to retype everything" (full story available here). That was quite a waste of money, wasn't it? This situation occurred less than 30 years ago, and it was able to be fixed because paper copies were available, a format everybody could read.

Now, try thinking about the same thing happening to your digital records: pension forms, family budget spreadsheets, graduation slideshow, mortgage contract. It's scary to think about, especially if you consider that it could happen in much less than 30 years. Sometimes, simply upgrading or changing your word processor creates this kind of problem.

What Are File Formats?

File formats are the rules that specify, for each type of data, which sequences of bits mean what. A file format specification contains all of the information needed to write and read that kind of file in any computer program. As far as we are concerned, file formats are open if the corresponding specification is completely available without requiring users to pay fees or placing any other restriction of any kind. The file format is considered to be more or less closed in all other cases. It is possible to write software that always can read old files created with other software only if the format is an open one. This holds true even if--and this is the whole point--the company that wrote that original software vanishes or decides to charge exorbitant fees for its latest version. This is why open file formats for office documents are vital for everybody, from you to your state archives and libraries.

Enter OpenDocument

Today there is a way to make sure that digital office files remain always available without incurring unnecessary expenses: the OpenDocument file format for text, spreadsheets and presentations. This format has been created by Oasis, a large consortium of industries such as Boeing, IBM and Microsoft. It officially is released to be usable by anyone, without fee. A number of factors guarantee that OpenDocument files always will be usable: the number of Oasis members, their combined experience, their commitment to keep OpenDocument free from restrictions and its submission for approval to the International Standards Organizations. Therefore, OpenDocument users will not need to spend much money and effort to migrate their files from one program to another if the one they currently run becomes too expensive, slow or cumbersome to use. That's what free market is all about, isn't it?

Getting the Facts Straight

OpenDocument has all it needs to level the playing field in the productivity software industry, currently dominated by Microsoft Office, and guarantee long-term availability of digital records. For this second reason, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently declared that it will store its digital files in the OpenDocument format, starting January 1, 2007. The Commonwealth also has answered on-line the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) about this policy. Attacks to this decision already have appeared in the mainstream media. Most of them, however, contain several errors or serious omissions. The rest of this article explains in normal language what these errors and omissions are, in order to give you the necessary information to protect your civil rights and your money.

The two attacks on OpenDocument that best represent the errors of fact and omission were made by the director of Americans for Technology Leadership (AfTL) on the Fox News Web site and by Citizens Against Governments Waste (CAGW). AfTL is an organization whose founding members include Microsoft and CAGW. James Prendergast, the director of AfTL, said that this Massachusetts policy is a terrible decision. But, he failed to mention that OpenDocument already fulfills the EU criteria on open standards, as declared in this article. Nor did he mention that several other states, such as Peru, already have passed or are discussing laws that, in the same spirit, acknowledge that "information autonomy"-- "Free access to public information by the citizen and Permanence of public data" (www.opensource.org/docs/peru_and_ms.php)--is the most important thing.

Even the CAGW press release shows the same kind of inaccuracies. For example, the release complains about the cost of "converting more than one million current files to the new format". But, the FAQ tells us that only documents created after January 1, 2007, must be in the OpenDocument format.

By ignoring what actually was declared, the AfTL article predicts Massachusetts will face a total halt to progress and a massive waste of public money as a result of its decision to use OpenDocument. It says, for example, "Businesses, organizations and citizens who interact with the state will also be forced to support Massachusetts' mandated technologies....even citizens who want to take advantage of online services will potentially have to purchase, install and learn new software to comply with the policy".

Using the same method, CAGW kindly informs "private sector businesses and average citizens" that they "could face compatibility problems in exchanging documents with all of the state agencies".

However, Massachusetts' FAQ explicitly says that the policy "applies only to documents created by Executive Department agencies. It does not require that citizens, businesses, and other governments use OpenDocument in communicating with the Executive Department". Luckily, this works both ways. The policy won't force Massachusetts citizens to use OpenDocument-enabled software, but they will be able to use such software. That is, they will be able to exchange OpenDocument files with their administration, without any loss of formatting, unnecessary expenses or objection from the state.

In Massachusetts' new policy, the AfTL sees the end of the "competitive, merit-based procurement process for technology services" used by Massachusetts so far. The FAQ explicitly says, "[the policy] does not require that agencies use only one office product. To the contrary, it offers agencies many choices. Agencies may choose to retain their existing MS Office licenses, as long as they use a method to save documents in OpenDocument Format. They may also use one of the many office tools that support OpenDocument Format in native format". In fact, the policy is not against any specific application. Specifically, it does not force Massachusetts to choose among only those products already supporting OpenDocument. Nothing, either in the current policy or elsewhere, prevents Microsoft from adding OpenDocument support to MS Office. If Microsoft did adopt the OpenDocument format, nobody could accuse the company of unfair competition.

Equally questionable is the AfTL article's assertion that the permission to use the PDF format is "puzzling and arbitrary". If it's only about open formats, the article asks, why is a proprietary one, such as PDF, allowed to stay? This one is easy to answer: comparing OpenDocument to PDF is like comparing apples to orange-colored glasses. OpenDocument is designed for collaborative editing, while PDF is for read-only distribution. When you receive a PDF file, it is in that format because the author did not want you to change it. The problem is in the relationship, or lack thereof, between you and that author--it has nothing to do with format openness. There is no reason to use the same criteria when deciding to accept or reject OpenDocument and PDF.

Basically, the only point worth considering in these articles against OpenDocument is the accusation that, unlike MS Office, the programs supporting OpenDocument today lack assistive technologies for users with disabilities. As it turns out, however, even this particular complaint basically is void. First of all, nothing in OpenDocument itself works against vision impairment. Second, nobody prevents MS Office from supporting OpenDocument. Finally, the Massachusetts FAQ explicitly says that "agencies can retain copies of MS Office as needed for disabled employees and other citizens. The legal rights of employees and other citizens with disabilities will take precedence over any particular implementation of the policy". The policy even "permits agencies to keep their existing MS licenses as long as the software supporting them includes a method for saving documents in OpenDocument Format". So, after reading these articles against OpenDocument and the Massachusetts FAQ, one has to wonder what these complaints actually are about--apart, of course, from perpetuating an existing monopoly.

Now Is the Time to Act

As Massachusetts Chief IT Officer Peter Quinn said, "[This] is about government sovereignty and history and keeping it available to citizens". Nothing more, nothing less.

If computer programs are pens, then think of file formats as alphabets. There is nothing wrong in selling overpriced pens, as long as cheap models also exist. But the whole thing is contingent on everybody using the same alphabet, without needing to pay fees or learn special secrets. OpenDocument is the digital version of our alphabets.

You can do a lot to protect your rights, your money and what has been called "our digital memory". A computer program may not belong to you, but there is no question that your data does. Don't let anybody take it hostage. Ask your software supplier today to support OpenDocument, for example, through this petition. Above all, ask to your state, county, city and school administration to follow Massachussetts' example.

Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE Project, as an efficient desktop. He also is a member of the OpenDocument Fellowship. Marco lives with his family in Rome, Italy.

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