Making Document Freedom Freer

Today March 26th is Document Freedom Day. It's today that we put the focus on the benefits of using open standards for the documents we use at work and home for spreadsheets, word processing and the like. As Apple demonstrated recently with...

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Today March 26th is Document Freedom Day. It's today that we put the focus on the benefits of using open standards for the documents we use at work and home for spreadsheets, word processing and the like. As Apple demonstrated recently with presentation files, using closed formats allows the vendor to arbitrarily force you to spend money to retain access to your own work, and can even render archived documents unreadable for all practical purposes -- a phenomenon known as 'bit rot'.

The problem of bit rot is as old as the software application. It is part of a family of problems caused when the software that manages your data is not under your ultimate control. Another manifestation is "interoperability" -- trying to use data created in one application in an equivalent alternative created by a different vendor. Yet another is decayed digital restrictions, where the DRM used by a vendor for an defunct business model continues to defeat legal access by the owner of the data.

This last problem is especially toxic as the US DMCA and similar laws elsewhere actually make it a crime to access your own data if to do so you have to break into the defunct DRM. All three are used as a tool to lock-in customers and lock-out competitors, at the cost of customer flexibility.

This is the exact reason behind the creation of the internationally standardized Open Document Format over a decade ago. Faced with regular forced "upgrades" to versions of software offering little more than the ability to view the files people were sending us, the open source team at Sun Microsystems decided in 2001 to create a truly open, XML-based document format for editable productivity documents.

We donated an initial specification to the OASIS standards body to create a working group, and many others gathered around to create a truly open, software-and-platform-independent set of document formats. Today those formats are supported by all serious productivity software; only those pursuing a lock-in strategy eschew them (in fact, it's a key indicator).

Open Standards Need Open Source

Open standards work best when they are implemented as open source, so it's good to have an excellent implementation in the form of LibreOffice and its relatives. But keeping those programs up-to-date takes work; the interoperability goalposts are constantly being moved by proprietary vendors. This can only happen if those who depend on the open source software either invest their own time in the project or spend their money with community members who will.

So it's great to see an initiative by the German trade association OSB Alliance to keep the open source implementations up to date. This week they announced the specification for further work to improve the open source code, notably by adding interoperable change tracking. The document arose from a workshop last year in Germany (which I attended) and represents use cases required by a range of German and Swiss public bodies. The next stage of their process will be for vendors to submit proposals to perform the work in return for payment provided by the public bodies.

This approach to improving the open source commons has worked well before, and is a great example of how users of open source software can gain benefits that aren't even available from proprietary software. As these public authorities meet their own needs through a form of crowdfunding, they also enrich the commons for the rest of us.

We need the liberties of open source and open standards more than ever. Happy Document Freedom Day!

 
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