Although I don't use it much myself, I've heard that Facebook is quite popular in some quarters. This makes its technological moves important, especially when they impact free software. Yesterday, we had what most have seen as a pretty big announcement from the company that does precisely that:
Today I'm excited to announce the next evolution of Messages. You decide how you want to talk to your friends: via SMS, chat, email or Messages. They will receive your message through whatever medium or device is convenient for them, and you can both have a conversation in real time. You shouldn't have to remember who prefers IM over email or worry about which technology to use. Simply choose their name and type a message.
We are also providing an @facebook.com email address to every person on Facebook who wants one. Now people can share with friends over email, whether they're on Facebook or not. To be clear, Messages is not email. There are no subject lines, no cc, no bcc, and you can send a message by hitting the Enter key. We modeled it more closely to chat and reduced the number of things you need to do to send a message. We wanted to make this more like a conversation.
So far, so predictable ("here, let bring even more of the things you do into this pretty walled garden...") But this new Messages services has another feature that hasn't been mentioned much: tight integration with Microsoft Office (kudos to Mary Jo Foley for picking up on this last week, and ReadWriteWeb for pointing it out after the launch.)
Here's the official comment from Microsoft:
What if there were more convenient ways to capture and share my ideas beyond witty status updates and humorous photos? What if I could share a poem a friend wrote that inspired me? Or a presentation that persuaded me? Or a spreadsheet that organized a bunch of random data so it finally made sense to me? We have partnered with Facebook to make sharing ideas and documents — serious or entertaining — a very easy and smooth experience.
Facebook's new messaging platform integrates the Office Web Apps to enable Facebook users to view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with just one click. As you know, Office helps you create stunning documents that bring your ideas to life. Now you can easily share those ideas with your friends and family on Facebook. I'm really excited about being able to make it even easier for people to use Office to access and share information across different devices, networks and platforms. With the Office Web Apps on Facebook, you have even more ways to express yourself with Office and easily share your thoughts with people that are important to you.
Microsoft's Office documents are already the dominant formats used around the world – a position that Microsoft has worked long and hard to protect. The rise of ODF as an alternative is a hopeful sign that things can change, but let's not delude ourselves: it is still used by only a small minority, and it is a constant battle to get the format accepted more widely.
That battle just got harder, thanks to Facebook's decision to integrate Microsoft Office formats into Messages in this way. It makes it much easier to share Microsoft documents than those created with OpenOffice/LibreOffice, say. Given the huge following that Facebook has – especially amongst the younger generation – that's a really big problem for free software and its future.
So we need to ask Mark Zuckerberg support open formats, too. Why do I think he might listen? Well, for a start, because of the following statement to be found on the Facebook developers site:
Facebook has been developed from the ground up using open source software.
Facebook might never have been created without the existence of zero-cost open source tools that allowed Zuckerberg and his mates to hack together some code easily and quickly when they came up with their idea. It wouldn't have grown and flourished to its current impressive scale if it had needed to buy ever-more licences for the software that it uses to run its huge infrastructure.
Put bluntly, Mr Zuckerberg owes open source a big "thank you" - or, rather, 41 billion of them. And if you want a more personal reason for him to support open formats, what about this, taken from his Facebook entry, which lists his interests as:
openness, making things that help people connect and share what's important to them, revolutions, information flow, minimalism
or this statement from him:
I'm trying to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share.
So, Mark, how about making the world a more open place by helping people to share open format documents?