File formats: approaching the freedom crossroad

File formats: approaching the freedom crossroad


When I first began to use GNU/Linux, I didn’t really care about free software, I just thought it was exciting to be able to mess around with code like that and see what could happen. I felt that it was fantastic that you could get under the bonnet; so to speak, and play with the code which powered everything.

I thought that was what I loved about the system. I was wrong, what I really fell in love with was freedom.

Freedom is a very important idea and sometimes we forget how important it really is. We live in a world of ideas and it is the freedom to talk about those ideas which gives these ideas purpose.

When we trade some of our freedom for convenience, we risk all of our freedoms. Does anyone remember Office 97? All in all, Office 97 was a good package but it contained a little easter egg which surprised a lot of people. Files created in Office 97 could not be opened in earlier versions of Office.

I felt it was fantastic that you could play with the code that powered everything. I was wrong, what I fell in love with was freedom

What’s important to note here is that the nature of words had not changed; what had changed was that Microsoft had decided that you couldn’t read your own information any more. Microsoft are not the only company to do something like this—Autodesk is another. People might say that this is not such a big deal, but I would beg to differ. You or I created the information contained in these files but someone else is then deciding if we can freely access it.

When you use free software like OpenOffice.org or Koffice the file format is always available to examine. This means that your information will always be available, regardless of the software version used.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

These words have not changed in hundreds of years, yet vendors of non-free software would disagree. They would say that those words have somehow become different between one version of a program to another and you should upgrade to their latest version in order to read those same words. It’s a similar thing which happens in the realm of operating systems. When I buy a computer in order to do something (for example writing a book, designing a house or simply listening to music), I believe that it is up to me to decide what I can do on my computer. I’ve paid for it, I pay for the electricity which powers it, so I should be able to what I want with it. If I have purchased a Video or DVD, I should be able to play it on my computer without having to break the law. If I write a book, I should be able to disseminate it as I see fit. If I design a house, I should be able to use that design as I wish.

I don’t believe these restrictions are good for anyone.

The reason I use free software is because of the freedom that comes with it. People all over the world celebrate this freedom everyday. This freedom is such a powerful enabler that it is quite astonishing. People are creating new businesses with free software everyday and being successful in doing so. Google is a great example. Google didn’t choose GNU/Linux to build their business upon solely because it was available for no cost, but because the freedom inherent with free software has allowed them to build a whole new way of categorizing information, and now everyone all over the world benefits.

As we head into the future of TPM computers and DRM enabled operating systems, there is a crossroads fast approaching. Do we take the right fork and give up control of our own information and digital thoughts? Or do we take the left fork and embrace freedom and the choice to decide for ourselves? This is the thought that I leave you with.

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Comments

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

MS may of changed their file format between versions of the same applications, like office95 as you said. but its no different to say, changed Hard drive file formats.

also Microsoft, NEVER restricted anyone from opening and viewing their documents.
you can download FREE viewers for all MS office file formats, then you can cut and paste them into what ever you like, and as you said, the text is still there is still the same, its still 100% accessable.

so whats your problem, i guess you were just trying to find yet another way to flame your old friends Microsoft.

if microsoft is so bad, why does open source try to emulate them ??
I mean,, "OpenOffice.org". why the word "Office", i guess you thought it was a good name to use, (even though its used by microsoft,), or is it to try to make people think its a comparable product ?

its so annoying to see the open source and free software people resort to "attack politics" to get ahead, it does not work in "real policics" to constantly degrade the "enemy" sooner or later your asked to "put up or shut up". so far, u cant "put up".

what i want to see, is someone comeing here and making clear statements as to WHY OPEN SOURCE IS BETTER, FUNCTIONALLY, "choice" is not the answer.
Open source gives you LESS choice. or only choices that we dont want.

I use "whats best", and what gets the job done, be it GNU/Linux, open source, or microsoft, whever is best for me, i will pay for price and use it.

it might be linux for some things or windows, or VMS or.

im sure there are hundreds of old linux binary files and would not work on todays linux systems, giving you exactly the same problem, with applications not able to read older file formats. no big deal. IF your software provider provies you will the support you required. (by chance MS does). not sure about GNU/Linux !!!

Tuatara's picture
Submitted by Tuatara on

"Open source gives you LESS choice. or only choices that we dont want."

1. Define you
2. Define we
3. Think
4. Open source gives us MORE choice, including choices that you dont want.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Please show me FREE .doc viewer from MS that I could use on my Linux box. Or xls. Or wma.

So, yes, MS is restricting users. And it is not allowing independent developers to create software to open files in MS formats by not letting them to look into file format specifications.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Don't feed the trolls, don't feed the trolls, don't feed the trolls

Oh, I give in. Here goes:

"I mean,, "OpenOffice.org". why the word "Office", i guess you thought it was a good name to use, (even though its used by microsoft,)"

I was using a program called Wang Office to send and receive emails in the late 80s, long before MS Office. I guess Microsoft saw that and thought it was a good word to use. Do you think so?

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You say "you can download FREE viewers for all MS office file formats".

Try to find a MS viewer for documents in Word 5.x or 6.0 for DOS these days. Sure enough, MS used to offer them as a download, but they were removed years ago.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Let's see why:
1. MS may of changed their file format between versions of the same applications, like office95 as you said. but its no different to say, changed Hard drive file formats.

This clearly indicates lack of standardisation. What you mean by hard-drive file format is quite ambiguous. Each application that uses the hard-drive may have a different file format. The point is of standardising file formats so that other applications can access data as well.

2. also Microsoft, NEVER restricted anyone from opening and viewing their documents.
you can download FREE viewers for all MS office file formats, then you can cut and paste them into what ever you like, and as you said, the text is still there is still the same, its still 100% accessable.

How can I view a MS Word document WITHOUT EITHER MS Word OR MS Word Viewer? The reason this is not possible is the format for MS Office documents are not open standards.

3. if microsoft is so bad, why does open source try to emulate them ??
I mean,, "OpenOffice.org". why the word "Office", i guess you thought it was a good name to use, (even though its used by microsoft,), or is it to try to make people think its a comparable product ?

The last time I checked, Microsoft hadn't trademarked the word "Office". The word "Office" has been in common use for much longer that Microsoft has. Also, it is OpenOffice that pioneered (and now Microsoft is trying hard to "copy" this) open file formats in XML. Microsoft is trying all they can to prevent adoption of this standard all the while pretending to offer comparable "open" XML formats for Office - which is not even 100% native XML and needs to embed binary ActiveX components to work!!
OpenOffice only offers compatible features in MicroSoft Office. MicroSoft Office did not invent those features - they existed in WordPerfect much before Microsoft Office. That would mean, by your standards, that Microsoft copied WordPerfect.

4. its so annoying to see the open source and free software people resort to "attack politics" to get ahead, it does not work in "real policics" to constantly degrade the "enemy" sooner or later your asked to "put up or shut up". so far, u cant "put up".

The last I checked, it was Microsoft that was attempting to put a knife in the back of Linux by signing a non-agreement with Novel about MS IP in GNU/Linux. Thats pretty rich coming from a company whose OS is the bastard off-spring of OS/2 and BSD. It is in fact annoying that Microsoft lovers close their eyes to the millions of features (and code) copied from other, more innovative systems/organisations.

5. im sure there are hundreds of old linux binary files and would not work on todays linux systems, giving you exactly the same problem, with applications not able to read older file formats. no big deal. IF your software provider provies you will the support you required. (by chance MS does). not sure about GNU/Linux !!!

The last time I checked, big corporates like Microsft and Oracle were rushing forwards, making stupid statements and even more stupid deals (Microsoft + Novel) to provide "enterprise support" for Linux. All this while genuine, high quality support has existed from RedHat, Canonical and other Open Source companies. These OpenSource support companies actually provide high quality support as opposed to the low-quality (many times non-existent) support provided by Microsoft. And the GNU/Linux Free Software/OpenSource Software community is very helpful to anyone that posts legitimate issues. See this for ratings of support quality (the study is independent and conducted by CIO Insight):

http://www.redhat.com/f/pdf/sec/CIO_research5_1205.pdf

To sum it all up, this article is quite on the mark. Your statements on the other hand are pure conjecture with neither facts nor figures to back them. In fact, some of your statements clearly indicate that you do not even understand the issues addressed by this article, thus making you and your statements the joke.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

so your pals from Microsoft also owns all rights to the word "Office"? that's rich. oh, yeah, no one makes a cent from OpenOffice.org, so i don't see how there is real competition between the two.

also, you do understand that most free viewers that can read MS documents are usually done through reverse-engineering, don't you? the reason why formatting and other problems occur when viewing/editing MS documents on non-MS viewers/editors is that MS keeps documentation on their formats to themselves. otherwise, variants such as OpenOffice.org would be zounds better than your pet MS Office. and in some ways, it already is. i like the idea of the Open Document Format and how it doesn't keep people locked in to a specific software. OO.org may die some day, but there will be other suites and viewers capable of reproducing an ODF file 100% accurately, something that can't be said about MS documents should MS Office die in the future.

how much do you know about politics, anyway? i reckon it's either you have little knowledge, or you simply don't keep yourself informed enough to make proper assessments of situations. politics is when MS uses lobby groups and cash to sway court decisions and laws to be enacted. politics is when MS creates an ECMA-approved language and then tacks on proprietary bits that they never specified in what they submitted to ECMA, and so the open-source implementation lags by miles. what's more, politics is when they try to scare paid open-source developers with patent FUD statements. maybe it's time they "put up or shut up" themselves, eh? as it is, they're all talk, but are scared to reveal their actual allegations, maybe because they themselves infringe patents or ideas themselves, only they hide their code.

we all have different priorities in choosing stuff, and for some of us, choice is one of the answers. don't go around dissing our priorities just because we don't share the same priorities as you. if you even cared to try FOSS (which i'm sure you never did, but have the audacity to diss it), you'd know that some of the functionality that is implemented in your beloved Windows have already been in Linux/BSD/Mac OS for a long time. lark all you want about choosing the best tools for the job, be it FOSS, but it's quite obvious from your remarks that you never used any FOSS tools.

do you even know the difference between what a binary file is and what a file format is? obviously you don't. stop even trying to be authoritative about it.

and to answer your last point, support is available for Linux. free or otherwise. and they answer more promptly to boot.

where do you get these "facts" anyway?

SERIOUSLY, IS IT THAT HARD FOR YOU TO GOOGLE FOR INFORMATION?

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I mean,, "OpenOffice.org". why the word "Office", i guess you thought it was a good name to use, (even though its used by microsoft,), or is it to try to make people think its a comparable product?

There were office suits before MS was in that business. Office is not even a term invented by MS. An Office Suite is just generally a suite of programs that are mainly used by workers at the office. MS has not more right using this term than anyone else, including Open Source developers. For more info on office suites, have a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_suite

If any party emulates others, MS is the king in that. All great stuff that MS claims to have brought to the public were someone else's ideas remarketed (and admittedly that is a domain they are good at: marketing stuff and bringing it to the big public). But please don't make the mistake that because someone is doing something alike a well-known MS app, that someone is trying to emulate MS, as there is very little chance that it was MS that invented the app in the first place. Next you will be saying that Firefox is emulating Internet Explorer or what? Or that aero and secured admin account in Vista were MS merits. Please check your facts before making such statements.

And yes, the fact that proprietary programs tend to make new formats that are unreadable in an older version of the software is a problem to many. Certainly when the new version needs quite some bucks to be acquired. There is a lot less of a problem with Open Source, since there is no problem acquiring the new version. Also an Open Source package will not create incompatible versions just to augment sales of a new version. And if there would be a problem like that with an Open Source project, it would be easy enough for any developer to create a solution and not be dependent on the party who created such problem.

its so annoying to see the open source and free software people resort to "attack politics" to get ahead, it does not work in "real policics" to constantly degrade the "enemy" sooner or later your asked to "put up or shut up". so far, u cant "put up".

And I find the trend that anyone who criticizes MS or other proprietary vendors are immediately taken for zealots that should not speak out and who's opinions are not valuable. If you don't agree, state facts why. Don't label the author for what he may or may not be. And if you want Open Source to put up, take a look at http://coulier.org/CMS/MDV_2007_homeusers_1_EN.html. The author there has quite some good points for areas where Linux gives quite a bit more interesting functionality than proprietary stuff (like automatic updates of ALL installed software, easy software repositories, etc.).

Kind Regards

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

This is what my daughter calls 'in the pudding'. Just yesterday I was thinking about file formats and today I read an article about them. What I was thinking about file formats is this:

For lay people, the discussion of file formats is often confusing. How multiple programs are able to read the same files doesn't matter to them because they typically use programs that are designed to work together, such as office suites, and browser plugins/helpers. And most of the time for most people it really is a non-issue.

However, to take the big picture view of society's data, the issue of the openness of file formats is huge. Most graphics file formats are open, so browsers, drawing programs, word processing programs, photo album programs, etc. can read them and display the same picture. When file formats are closed, only developers that have access to the syntax can write programs to access that data, limiting its use and value. But when those programs are used to create important data, society suffers.

Since I often talk to lay people about computer industry issues, I use analogies. Yesterday I came up with an analogy for file formats: human language. File formats have a syntax that is understood by the programs that access the data in them, just as language is understood by people talking together. And the analogy for closed file formats is slang. Slang gives words and syntax a meaning is known only to the 'in' crowd using it. Slang changes whenever the 'out' crowd starts understanding it. Slang is fun (you can be 'in the pudding' ;~), and occasionally it becomes a part of the mainstream language. But can you imagine if the US Declaration of Independence were written in slang?

Open file formats are like mainstream language, which is documented in dictionaries by people who analyze how language is used. The analogy begins to break down (as analogies tend to do) when looking at open, proprietary file formats, such as PDF. I guess that would be like the editors of the dictionary telling people how to use language, instead of just documenting how it is actually used. This could result in the exclusion of words and phrases based on reasons such as misunderstanding of subject matter, political incorrectness, definitions of morality, etc.

So the main issues of file formats are: 1) their longevity and 2) who gets to define them. For important data we obviously want the file formats to be long lasting. And because of the diversity of society's use of information, we need file formats to be defined with input from all of the people using them. Both of these requirements are accomplished only with open file formats.

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Dale O’Gorman's picture