On October 6th, 2010 Microsoft published a short video on Youtube titled “A Few Perspectives on OpenOffice.org”. The video is about “Some thoughts from OpenOffice.org users and why they switched back to Microsoft Office” (OpenOffice.org and its offspring LibreOffice are “free-as-in-freedom” alternatives to Microsoft’s Office productivity suite. They have no license costs and natively support OpenDocument, an international standard format for office documents).

When it first appeared, I simply ignored the video. After seeing all the buzz around it and reading two articles that explain some of its weaknesss (1), I gave up and watched it. The first view proved the objections made in those articles, but also made me uneasy. I could feel that there was something more serious, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I watched the video again, and a flash of understanding came.

What Microsoft published is not really a video about office productivity. A good part of that video is about drug addiction and nothing more. It says “we already fell addicted to this specific drug, it feels good and we see no way out. So you should take it too”. This is what I was feeling. Several of those quotes really sound like statements from people who tried to free themselves of cocaine or some other equally destructive substance and failed, simply because they misunderstood their situation or didn’t really care to succeed.

The best (but not the only) case is the quote at 2 minutes, 30 seconds from the beginning:

School CIO: When we returned to Microsoft Office after our experience with OpenOffice you could practically hear a collective sigh of relief across the entire district

Compare the tone and the implicit message of that statement with stories like “I couldn’t function without cocaine” or “Who is a cocaine addict” and you’ll see what I mean.

Where is the drug, exactly?

If you look at the whole video carefully, what it actually says is basically three things:

  1. there are, indeed, specific cases where OpenOffice or any of its derivatives are, today, actually inferior to Microsoft Office: integration with other functions and tools in large organizations is one.
  2. “We own you and you can’t escape. You will have to continue to buy our office drug forever, regardless of its future quality or price. Because you were so fool to save all your own files in the formats that we made, on purpose, incompatible with any other software. Muahahahahaha!”.
  3. Schools often help to enforce this dependency. In the video, 85 seconds from the beginning, an “educator” says: “I’ve had students who turned in files that they’ve converted from OpenOffice with formatting problems… that affects their grade”

Denying point 1 would be foolish, but please let me just ask: why should a small business or a family who’ll never need such functions care about that, that is be forced to use Microsoft Office themselves just because their Government or the School likes it?

The original interview to the Schol CIO quoted above basically confirms point 2: even if, some day, the interface of OpenOffice became as good as that of Microsoft Office, they couldn’t switch because of format incompatibilities. Of course, what causes point 2 is not Microsoft. It’s the same Governments, School Boards, Consumer Associations and all the other organizations that would actively fight drug addiction or attack business monopolies in any other case. Why do they fail to see this one? What’s their “Plan B” for when (not if, when) Microsoft will eventually go out of business as any other company? Above all, why do these institutions actively support this monopoly, by tolerating that public documents are exchanged or stored in secret formats?

Point 3 is maybe the most depressing one. What that “educator” is saying is, in practice: “since we the Public School simply don’t get what file formats are and what their impact is (2), in order to get good grades you must pay or pirate (please don’t go ethical on me, this is education!) this specific software and have a computer powerful enough (= unnecessarily expensive) to run it. How your parents would afford it is their problem”. And this is an “educator” from a Public School that faced a staggering $240 milion in budget cuts last year, in a county whose unemployment rate is out of control (close to 12 percent in august 2010).

The conclusion? Secret file formats are the real cause of all the addiction problems confessed by the victims quoted in that video. Don’t tolerate such formats. Demand that only really open standards like OpenDocument are used for public documents.

(1) see Microsoft Gives its Blessing to OpenOffice.org and Microsoft posts video of customers criticizing OpenOffice

(2) here are a non-technical slideshow on the effects of file formats, an article on file formats as alphabets, and one on why file formats like OOXML are bad