(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
What Is OpenDocument?
In the last decades, file formats have been used by several software companies to avoid free market competition, making it harder for customers to switch to newer and better products, or to place restrictions on how people use programs or the information produced with them. This is a well known fact which has happened in many fields, from engineering to movies.
Today this problem is particularly evident in the office automation world. What makes it possible for only one office suite to remain the one which is installed, no matter how expensive it is, or how heavy its hardware requirements are, in almost all the Schools or public and corporate offices of the world is not its quality. It is the fact that billions of public and corporate files are already locked up in a format that only that piece of software can decode, modify and display without any error or limit. The consequences on the world economy, in and out the software sector, are remarkable. No matter where you live, to make business or, in general, exchange complex documents with almost all Public Administrations or companies, you have to use one specific brand of software.
To figure out how ridiculous this is, try to imagine if there were the same requirement on paper documents. How would you react if your government told you “We accept tax forms, driver license applications, tender proposals and any other similar document only if they are filled in and signed with THIS brand of ball-point pen, even if it is the most expensive one”? Still this is exactly what is happening today, and it doesn’t stop at office software.
Since that office suite is the only one which, regardless of merit or price, can or must be kept in so many computers for the reasons above, the same happens to the operating systems on which it runs and, by reflex, on many other software programs which run well, or run only, in the same environment. These monopolies are then propagated in the homes: it’s just natural (or unavoidable) to use the same software that one knows from the office or that, for the same reason, is preloaded (that is charged, even if you didn’t want it) on almost all new computers.
To sum up, this de facto monopoly on office documents is one of the main reasons why several of the Digital Dangers described in this book are still such a big deal for every parent and taxpayer. Today, however, this is also one of the fields where, at least for the future, it is easier to switch to a definitive solution.
Today there is a file format which is made to order for all usual office documents (texts, presentations and spreadsheets), doesn’t force its private and public users to use only one office suite and doesn’t have, in and by itself, any black box that could make it useless for storing important information in digital format. This format, called OpenDocument has been developed by a nonprofit consortium and formally ratified in May 2006 under the name “ISO 26300” by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO is the same organization which defines, in a non partisan manner, a lots of other rules without which doing business or having fun would be either impossible or at least much more difficult, expensive or risky than it is today. The formats of CD-roms (ISO 9660), paper sheets (ISO 216) or alpine skis mountings (ISO 10045), as well as the admissible burning behavior of bedding items (ISO 12952-1) or the safety requirements of powered toothbrushes (ISO 20127) are all examples of ISO standards that already make our own lives easier and safer.
Being an ISO standard is not the solution to all problems: it is still possible to have ISO standards which are technically flawed or duplicate other standards just as an attempt to keep existing monopolies alive. The ISO label, however, remains a very, very strong guarantee that something has been thought through, structured and at least documented in a complete, impartial and professional way.
This is why OpenDocument is so important in fighting Digital Dangers: its many purely technical merits and its ISO standard status guarantee that it is sufficiently featured and well documented to be really usable with many different software programs, thus protecting consumers (and government) choice. Note that, just for this reason, being an ISO standard is a mandatory requirement for many technologies to be even evaluated for government adoption.
Back to office documents, other standards may be better than OpenDocument as patches to limit the damage which has already been done, that is to convert already existing files to formats which are more likely to remain readable by future generations. Only OpenDocument, however, due to its future-proof, “open by design” nature and the fact that it was not created by only one private company to document and replicate the behavior of its own software, is an acceptable choice for the near and long term future. If OpenDocument became the only accepted format for exchange and archival of new documents in all Public Administrations, the chain effects would be so big and beneficial that many people may just stop worrying about many Digital Dangers inherent in the current situation.
Sooner or later, every producer of office software will be forced to support OpenDocument. By design, however, this standard doesn’t limit or restrict every possible detail. For example, it doesn’t specifies a single format for images embedded in documents. The practical consequence is that nothing prevents a program from creating files which fully respect the OpenDocument ISO 26300 standard, but are just containers of images and other components which are in proprietary or unknown formats, using this “100% OpenDocument compatibility” to keep winning governments contracts worldwide, while still locking out everybody else.
This is a very concrete risk that could nullify all the potential benefits of OpenDocument, but it is not a technical issue. A technical specification cannot and should not contain, allow or forbid everything under the sun. This is a separate lawmaking and “trademark” issue. The complete solution to regain public ownership of public documents is to to create something like an OpenFile trademark which is applicable only to OpenDocument files in which no component is usable with only some programs, and then require laws that make files with that “trademark” the only acceptable ones for exchange and archival of public documents.