File formats, alphabets and public money: did you know that...

File formats are the rules that define the meaning of all the sequences of bits that you can find inside a computer file.

If the format of a file isn’t really open, that is completely known and useable by everybody without paying fees or asking some permit, that file will surely readable without errors only with one or very few software programs and only until those programs exist. Therefore, their authors will be able to ask whatever price they want for every new version of their program(s), especially if citizens are trained in public schools to know (only) those same programs.

As far as digital documents are concerned, file formats are like alphabets and software programs like pens. As long as alphabets are open in the sense I just explained, it doesn’t really matter if somebody writes you a letter with a gold-plaqued pen on hand-made parchment: you will still be able to read the letter and reply to who send it to you, even if you don’t have enough money to buy the same brand of pen or paper. The same thing should always happen even with digital documents.

Even if you know little or nothing about software, if you consider for one second how many companies and Public Administrations (PAs) you’ll immediately see how important it is that, at least in those contexts, only really open file formats are used. In any other situation PAs and small businesses should spend much more than actually needed just to open and read the files that they must use for their daily activities: would you pay a tax only to open an envelope and take out of it the actual letter? On top of that, things would get worse over time, because after 10 or 20 years some of those files may become unreadable: since we’re also talking of public documents, almost everybody could be damaged. Would you be happy if those files that may become unreadable in a few decades included your pension or mortgage documents?

If you want to know more about these issues, please read my slideshow on file formats, this comment on an Italian law proposal on these issues or keep an eye on Stop!/Zona-M, because we’ll certainly come back to this topic.

Remember that ignoring the problem just because “I can crack and install for free whatever software I need” means shooting yourself in the foot. First of all, private citizens may install software illegally and never be catched, but Public Administrations can’t (even in developing countries, the pressure to comply with international laws grows every year) and so they are forced to spend lots of your tax money every year (hundreds of millions euros each year in Italy alone). In the second place, when a software program disappears, the documents created with it may become totally or partially unreadable if they werent’t saved in really open formats, regardless of the amount of money spent on that program.

When it comes to office documents (texts, spreadsheets and presentations) programs like OpenOffice have no license costs, are so flexible to be even usable by primary school children and have a very good level of compatibility with files in the .doc, .xls and .ppt formats. However, relying on them to keep those formats always accessible would be just wrong.

OpenOffice or any other software program cannot achieve, and never will, full, 100% compatibility with the formats of Microsoft Office, for one simple reason. Doing that means to have reverse engineered to the very last bit a lot of rules that are either secret or impossible to apply with other programs and, above all, may change without advice in every moment, vanifying months or years of work.

In many, many cases there is and there will be perfect compatibility, but never in all of them. It’s simply impossible. Newer Microsoft formats like .docx or its successor, OpenXML, have the same problem: just say no to OpenXML. Public Administrations should switch as soon as possible to OpenDocument, an international standard which is already usable (even in the newer versions of Microsoft Office) and is the only viable alternative today to proprietary formats for office files. Please don’t forget that usage of really open file formats, at least by PAs, is a right and a need of every citizen that saves your money but only if it actually happens every day, not when it’s simply “promoted” in some formal, good-looking but uneffective statement!

The Italian case

In Italy open file formats are in a somehow absurd status, but the situation is probably very similar in most other countries. The importance of open file formats is acknowledged by the Italian [Code of Digital Administration issued in 2005] which says (unofficial translation of art. 68, parts 2, 3 and 4):

  1. PAs should adopt software solutions that allow representing digital data and documents in several formats, of which at least one should be open, unless there are particular, exceptional needs.
  2. A format is open if it is public and thoroughly documented.
  3. CNIPA (the Italian National Center for ICTs in Public Administrations) creates and updates, at least once per year, a list of the open formats that the PAs can use…

However, five years after that Code, the official list of admissible formats that everybody can download from the CNIPA page on open formats does not contains the .doc, .xls and .ppt formats of Microsoft Office. The absence of those formats is a very good thing: the fact that a file format is a so-called “de-facto standard”, that is something that most individuals and organizations use, does not mean at all that that format does not create problems.

This said, the situation in Italy can be summarized as follows: file formats are alphabets, open file formats were officially declared necessary at least five years ago, an official organization of the Italian Government says the formats of Microsoft Office are not open ones, but those formats are still ignored, when not actually refused, in most Italian Public Administrations. Why? Very often, it’s just out of inertia and because citizens themselves never complain. So don’t follow this example, check what your national laws say about open file formats, demand that they are applied and to know more keep reading Stop!/Zona-M.