The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 3: Office Documents

Having looked at music formats and instant messaging protocols, this final installment of a short series on open formats covers what may be the most ubiquitous of digital file formats: office documents. Spreadsheets, presentations, desktop databases, and the common text document hold most of the business information of our age.

In North America, at least, most of this information lives inside a set of patent-protected, binary (which makes them difficult to reverse-engineer), and undocumented file formats. The Microsoft Office formats, the most well known of which is the Microsoft Word format, are used to store millions (billions?) of documents, from personal journals to government legislation.

For those creating these documents, the problem is inherently disguised. If you create a Microsoft Word document, then you must have access to Microsoft Office and can therefore open, read, and modify the document. The problem arises when you don’t have access to a copy of Microsoft Office. This may be due to financial limitations, or it may be because you are running on a platform that is not supported by Microsoft. No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy a copy of Microsoft Office for Linux.

The frustration of receiving Microsoft Word documents as email attachments led Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, to write a brief manifesto covering the perils of this proprietary format.

The essential problem with a proprietary document format like Microsoft Word is that a private corporation owns the ability to access the works you have created. While it’s not likely that Microsoft is going to deny you access to your Microsoft Word-formatted love letters and chili recipes tomorrow, they do theoretically hold that right.

Confusion and Optimism

The closed binary format in Microsoft Office has been enormously broad in its reach. However, the life of this format is limited. Microsoft recently announced plans to move to a documented format that could potentially be accessed through non-Microsoft means.

The meaning of this announcement has yet to be truly understood. Some see this as the end of the proprietary Microsoft format and a great victory for freedom and openness, as millions of documents will be created in an openly documented format. Others are more cynical, citing licensing issues that will limit what people can do with the formats.

It seems clear, though, that while the legal issues around the new Microsoft formats remain disputed, their technical architecture (basically XML in Zip files) will be much more easily accessible regardless of whether access is endorsed by Microsoft or not.

I don’t clearly understand the issues around this yet myself. The Microsoft community/weblog site, Channel 9, posted a video interview about the new Office formats with Jean Paoli. Watching this video shows the Microsoft engineer’s obvious enthusiasm for openness. However, the video ironically requires proprietary Windows Media technologies for playback.

Alternatives and Workarounds

As Ogg Vorbis is to MP3, and as Jabber is to MSN/ICQ/AIM, so OpenDocument is to Microsoft Office formats. OpenDocument is a new set of standard office file formats for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and charts. This open and standard format is the default format in the forthcoming 2.0 office suite, but could theoretically be implemented by other applications as well.

Saving your documents in the OpenDocument format means that no one owns the ability to access your works. While the specifications aren’t perfect (I was dismayed to here complaints about the spreadsheet component), it remains a critical standard.

As is the case with instant messaging protocols, the move from proprietary to open office file formats can be eased with the help of transitional software. The suite (both the 1.x and upcoming 2.0 versions) can open, edit, and save the main Microsoft Office formats quite well. Using, I can easily open any Microsoft Word attachments I might get in my email.

For those that are still stuck with Microsoft Office as an overall platform in their organization, but are looking to move away from Microsoft Windows, there are more promising options. The Wine project is a compatibility layer for running Windows applications on Linux. Especially when packaged in the Codeweavers CrossOver Office product, it is surprisingly easy to actually run Microsoft Office on Linux. This is obviously only a transitional aid, and not a long term solution, but it is helpful.

Conclusion: Freedom Should Be On By Default

The core idea behind this series on open formats and protocols is that you should not be limited in access to what you have created yourself, regardless of the tools you used to create. No one would buy a pen that produced writing that could only be read through special glasses sold by the same company. Even more so, no one would allow their governments to publish documents created by this crippled pen.

Being locked out of content that should be free or that you have legitimately purchased is bad enough. I have to use illegal software to watch DVDs (that I have bought and paid for) on my laptop. However, it is even worse when you are locked out of content that you have created yourself.

If your mom buys a computer, writes you a letter, and emails it to you in the Microsoft Word format, you have to pay Microsoft to read the letter. Of course, your mom doesn’t have to use Microsoft Office, but if it is the default word processor on her new computer, she may not realize the issue.

If you have your wedding video-recorded and it is given to you by the production company in DVD format, you can’t make copies for your family or as a backup. Again, the production company doesn’t have to use the proprietary DVD format, but it is the only one that will play in everyone’s home DVD player. [UPDATE: Several people have corretly pointed out that the proprietary DVD encryption (CSS) is optional and need not be used on personal DVDs – good point.]

For these reasons, it is not good enough that freedom be available as an option. Freedom must be on by default.

The Catch-22 of Open Formats mini-series
  1. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music
  2. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging
  3. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 3: Office Documents (you are here)

12 thoughts on “The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 3: Office Documents

  1. For these reasons, it is not good enough that freedom be available as an option. Freedom must be on by default.

    The question is how to best convince companies like Microsoft and Apple that it is their best interest to support open formats, instead of their proprietary DOCs and ITLs.

  2. Marty: Ah, but you see, the problem is that it’s not in the best interest of companies like Microsoft and Apple to use open formats. If people don’t need to spend $400 on an office suite in order to open a document, they probably won’t.

    And on a side note, does anyone know of an open source, Linux compatible, spreadsheet app that can write Quatro Pro files? v2 can do Word Perfect documents, but last time I looked it couldn’t deal with wb3’s.

  3. > Spreadsheets, presentations, desktop databases, and the common text document hold must of the business information of our age.

    Excellent past couple of entries. Just wanted to say that in this sentence, from the first paragraph, didn’t you want to say “most” instead of “must?”

  4. 2Charlie

    “And on a side note, does anyone know of an open source, Linux compatible, spreadsheet app that can write Quatro Pro files?”

    IIRC, Gnumeric can

  5. There’s an interesting quote from Bill Gates in a recent interview at Fortune. Aside from the Linux desktop community, he’s right that almost everyone has Office. Not that that’s ideal, but for much of the world it’s pervasive enough that it’s functionally fine.

    Interviewer’s Question: What about your open-source rival OpenOffice?

    Bill Gates: Well, most people already own Microsoft Office, and so it’s free to them, whereas OpenOffice is not the same quality, not innovating, and doesn’t have all the modules. We compete with our installed base by innovating.

  6. Regarding DVD’s: even with a DVD which doesn’t implement CSS it is *still* illegal to watch DVD’s on linux for patent licensing reasons. DVD Video is encoded using MPEG-2, which is a decidedly non-Free (in any sense of the word) standard. Every MPEG-2 encoding and decoding product must pay the MPEG-LA (Licensing Association) a fee for the pleasure of using MPEG-2, which is covered by some 39 patents IIRC.

    This in and of itself is not an obstacle to “legit” DVD playing, however the licensing costs are not footable by Average Joes ™. There are no price breaks for F/OSS projects. So, though it seems pretty unreasonable to “us”, the MPEG patent holders are completely in the right as far as the law is concerned: they have the “rights” and anybody who wants to use their idea has to pay them. This hasn’t stopped development of Free mpeg-2 libraries and applications, however. 🙂

    idan AT fastmail DOT fm

  7. as far as the OpenOffice problem goes, *this* seems like the obvious answer to me:

    Feature Request: OO documents plugin for Microsoft Office

    Posted: Fri Aug 06, 2004

    > I think OO should use a Microsoft tactic agains Microsoft.
    > OO should produce a plugin for all the versions of MSOffice
    > so that OO documents (.sxw .sxc, etc.) could be opened
    > (and maybe saved) right from within MSOffice. That way if
    > someone can’t leave MS Office yet, they could at least be
    > able to receive OO documents from OO users. Since the OO
    > document formats are superior IMO, it would help to make
    > them more universally accepted.

  8. Note: that OpenDocument support by other suites isn’t theoretical at all, the recently released KOffice 1.4 already has support for OpenDocument and they’re planning to make it the default format in later releases. I don’t want to criticise the Gnumeric chap too much as not only is it a very fine spreadsheet but it’s created for free but KOffice were part of the standardisation process of OpenDocument, which has been going on in public for over a year. If they had serious misgivings then there was plenty of time to talk about it before the spec was frozen!

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