The importance of Document Freedom Day explained by Microsoft job offer

March 31st, 2010, is “Document Freedom Day (DFD), a global day for document liberation”. Local events have been organized all over the world to “educate the public about the importance of Free Document Formats and Open Standards in general”.

Indeed, Free as in Freedom file formats are essential in a world that depends so much on digital technology as ours: they are necessary to preserve our culture, our memory, our data and lots of our public money. If you want to know exactly why, you are welcome read any of these resources:

These are only a few of the many resources that you can use to understand how important DFD is for you, even if, personally, you don’t care at all about computers. The rest of this page, instead, explains how even a job offer from one of the greatest enemies of Document Freedom, Microsoft, proves the same point.

Wanted: Linux and Open Office Compete Lead

On January 4th, 2010, Microsoft published on his website a job offer for a Linux and Open Office Compete Lead. Since then the offer has been removed, but a PDF version of that page is still available here and in other places online. Reading that offer is very interesting because it proves, in case you weren’t convinced yet, what really constitutes the reason of Microsoft’s huge market “share”.

Among other things, the job offer says that (bold fonts are mine) “the job consists of focusing on one of the biggest issues that is top of mind for… Steve Ballmer… The core mission of CSI is to win share against Linux and OpenOffice.org. Responsibilities include (last bullet on page 1) “to see where Linux Server and OpenOffice challenges arise.”

Here is, in normal language, what Microsoft actually said with that job offer:

  1. Operating systems which are alternative to Windows, like Linux, are a “big issue” only in the server market (the servers are the computers powering websites, databases and other centralized services: the computers on people’s desks, and by extension the software they run, are called “desktops” instead)
  2. In the desktop market the real “big issue” for Microsoft are not alternatives to Windows, like Linux, but alternatives to Microsoft Office, like OpenOffice

The reason for point 2 is that if you control office productivity software you can control the format of the files produced, distributed and accepted (even if only by inertia) by all the users of that software. What happens if you, in practice, also own that file format, meaning that no other software can decode it 100% of the times because it’s either secret or uselessly complicated?

The result is that you don’t need to be good to win: all your initial users will be stuck to your office software (otherwise they’ll lose access to their documents) and will force everybody else who needs those files to use the same office software and only the operating systems compatible with that office software.

The content of that Microsoft job offer is a proof that they don’t have a de-facto monopoly over desktop software because Windows or Microsoft Office are objectively better, more robust and performing, friendlier to use and so on. Such things may even be true, but that’s another issue. What that job offer says is that, in order to maintain the Windows monopoly on the desktop, Microsoft does not need at all to make or keep Windows better than Linux. They only need to keep the most complete office suite for Linux in a subordinate position. Otherwise, why would they say “OpenOffice” instead of “Linux desktop” in the job offer? (A corollary of this may be that any campaign from Free Software advocates focused on promoting “Gnu/Linux vs Windows”, instead of “open file formats vs proprietary ones” is doomed to fail…)

This is why Document Freedom Day is so important: moving to (office) file formats that are really, always usable with OpenOffice means to never lose important documents and create the conditions to save lots of public and private money by running the software that you want to run and keeps your documents free.