The Art of Convincing and the Importance of Freedom

A kid walks to her father. She wants a chocolate. She knows the father can’t refuse, but mom has tighter control over whether she can really have it. The kid is smart. She tells her dad “mom says I can have it if you agree”. The father says “OK”. Then she goes to mom and says “dad thinks I can have chocolate. Give me one.”

What’s smart about this is that the kid knows the opposition well. Microsoft seems to know it as well. OOXML, the format they’re proposing to be an ISO format for storing documents, needs support from the industry and countries for it to be a standard. Nothing’s wrong with that. But the problem is they don’t want to reveal all the specifications of storing files in their format. Which basically means they continue to have a monopoly and tight control over your documents.

Let’s say you’ve bought MS Word or MS Office in 1998 and are happy with it. It still works. All your documents are stored on your hard disk. Now you decide to upgrade your computer and with it, all your software. You purchase the newest version of MS Office. You open your old document. It doesn’t open. You try another one. Same result. You think something’s gone wrong with your backup. You blame the computer vendor who gave you the new machine and promised to restore your old data. The problem, however, is not caused by the vendor. It’s caused by Microsoft. Over the years, they decided to change the file formats and not support the documents which were created by older versions of their software. So now you’re left with unusable copies of your documents because there is no support available for you to import the data to the new format.

Why can this happen? Because Microsoft didn’t want to share the details on how they store your information with others. We saw why this is bad. But if they were to share the details, won’t your documents be insecure? Won’t others be able to see what you have? Well, no. As long as there are people who have the same software that you have, they’ll be able to open your documents.

Also consider this: you don’t want to purchase the expensive software from Microsoft to store your documents. You use free software available (free as in freedom, not price) to store your documents. But someone sends you a document in a proprietary format. How do you access the information present in it? Since Microsoft doesn’t share details as to how it stores information, you won’t be able to access it. You don’t want to buy a few thousands Rupees worth of software only because some other people use it.

So isn’t Microsoft’s proposal to make its file format a positive step? In a way, yes. Because it proves that opening up of that information does not in itself constitute insecurity. If you want your documents to be safe, password-protect them and take precautions to not expose them to suspicious people.

But that’s it. It’s not a positive step for the simple reason that they don’t want to publish the entire file format. What they’re proposing is a mini-skirt. Show a little, hide a lot.

India just voted against making OOXML an ISO standard. This is a very positive move. We’re not encouraging bad practices and we want interoperable standards. The rival format, ODF (Open Document Format), already has two office suites supporting it and using as the native file format (OpenOffice.Org and KOffice). Everything is open and interoperability is guaranteed. No one has to buy anything from anyone to open a file stored in this format. Just download a copy of either of the office suites and you’re ready to go.

Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved in rejecting the OOXML standard.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Convincing and the Importance of Freedom”

  1. >No offense intended; but, my friend, I am confused, what do you mean by mini-skirt? or show a little, hide a lot?

    I think you might want to include a few facts in your blog, like –
    1) Now, office 2003 file formats are also open which are covered under Open Specification Promise”
    2) OpenXML is not a mini-skirt, or a show a little and hide a lot. Look at the specs – all including it’s around 25000 pages or more, it includes EVERYTHING that makes up a office document.
    3) Finally, OpenXML is an ISO standard
    4) You don’t need to “buy” Office 2007 in order to use OpenXML file format, you can even use it with older office versions (from Office 2000- Office 2003) – Just download this compatibility pack and you are good to go.

    Keep an eye on my blog for further details on OpenXML.

    Please let me know if you need any other details.

    Btw, I like your blog man! :) take care

  2. As what I experience, MS Office always can open older version of Office documents. I don’t know where you get your sample from. Borrowing someone else’s experience?
    Standards are always a moving target. It happens not only in Office products.

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