Open Source and Open Office XML

I’ve had friends and colleagues that have championed open source software and operating systems for ages. While I’ve appreciated their arguments I’ve never been convinced by them to actually proceed and move whole-scale to open source – either because it would be inconvenient, the software that I needed wasn’t immediately available in the same format as what I was using in Windows, or I just didn’t have the time to learn an entirely new way of computing. I’ve worked with computers for the past five or six years and in all that time has been in Microsoft environments – I’ve had (and in many ways continue to have) a deep investment in Microsoft products, and that’s been a central factor in Microsoft keeping my business.

The decision to avoid switching to an open source Office Suite was practically sealed when I started to demo Microsoft Office 2007 for my workplace – I love the interface, the built-in designs, and the ability to make professional looking documents with ease. Office 2007 completely drops the GUI of all other Office packages and reinvents the wheel, somehow managing to come closer to that Form of perfect Office computing. Without knowing anything about the new document format that Office 2007 used I was just annoyed that it wasn’t interoperable with previous versions of Office, but that was relieved when Microsoft placed a free conversion package on their Window’s Update website. Finally, I thought, I’d be able to share these awesome documents that I’m making with everyone in the Windows world!

Then I started to learn about the OOXML document format that underlies the default document formats in MS Office 2007. Microsoft is currently pushing to have their document standard recognized as an ‘open’ standard, which would put it on the same stage as the Open Document Format (ODF) but without the transparency of ODF. Microsoft has opted to try and fast-track the standard in the hopes that it can force other major Office Suites to recognize OOXML as the dominant (and proprietary) ISO sanctioned way of exchanging data. If this OOXML received ISO sanction it would means that the people using documents that are based on OOXML would not be allowed to see precisely how their data was being encoded. This would be similar to being told that you can call anyone that you’d like anywhere in the world, but that you couldn’t learn the specifics of how that call was being made – such a situation would limit your ability to control your (oftentimes personal) information.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal – who really cares about office document formats, right? Pretty well everyone in the world uses Microsoft Office already, so it’s effectively a defacto standard as things stand now. Anyone that complains is just blowing smoke and not wanting to accept reality!

Such a position couldn’t be farther from the truth and is actually disingenuous. As the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program is making evident, most people in the world lack computers. They lack phones. Hell, a lot of them lack clean water and sufficient food. What they tend not to lack, however, is a desire to take control of their situation and turn it around on their own terms. Rather than simply parachuting aid into impoverished nations ad infinitum, the members of those nations want to be able to work, to earn a living, and to provide for their families without requiring handouts from strangers. The OLPC program takes those needs into consideration – children are to be approached with dignity and consequently allowed to learn, tinker, and think about the technologies that they are using. For this reason the OLPC program is dominantly using open-source software and hardware drivers (though they aren’t all open-source; the broadcomm wireless card that is needed to create mesh-networks uses proprietary code) so that the people that grow up using these computers will also grow up being able to determine how their computers will function and, most importantly, how they can communicate with one another.

By pushing for a world-wide ISO standard Microsoft is attempting to stamp their technology into each and every office suite that hopes to gain traction in the global business community. This means that those students in less economically developed countries (LECDs) that grow up learning to use open-source communications will be forced to use closed formats when they enter Western business circles. The transparent communications that they fight for and learn to value will be put to the test: will they refuse to abandon their hard fought principles and be limited in their dealing in Western business communications, or will they set aside principles when trying to enter Western markets?

When you use Microsoft OOXML standards it’s important that you keep the following statement in mind:

Won’t you please think of the children!

Edit: Bob Sutor has recently posted links to a series of blog posts that underscore the negative effects of OOXML. If you’re interested in this topic, I’d highly recommend that you check them out.