Answer to some comments about "Software is too important to leave it to programmers"

This is an answer to this and other comments from “Anonymous” to my article Software is too important to leave it to programmers.

Dear anonymous,

let’s start from this:

I work in a law office. I’m quite familiar with legal citations used throughout the country.

In my first answer to you I said “governmentS”. Plural. The world is not the USA, it’s much bigger than that. I don’t write for USA only audiences and you should never assume that something is only about USA only because it happens to be in English.

That specific article, “Software is too important to leave it to programmers” (check by yourself) is the translation of something I originally wrote in Italian, about Italy. In Italy there are laws that mandate that public documents, when published online or archived, must also be in at least one open format, and the Microsoft Office formats are not in the list of open file formats issued by the Italian Government agency that takes care of these matters. This is documented with links to the original sources in other articles I’ve published here about Open Standards (look for those about Vendola, for example).

Besides Italy there ARE other countries that mandate the usage of non-proprietary formats for public documents. The most recent big announcement of this kind is the one from Indonesia, but you can find plenty of similar ones if you do care to look.

In hindsight, it is obvious that I HAVE made a mistake by not specifying this at the beginning of that specific translation. I am sincerely sorry. Had I done it, it would have probably saved all of us the time spent reading your comments. Please accept my apologies.

The same considerations apply to this other remark:

Your argument presupposes a problem that does not exist: that government agencies provide information in one, and only one manner, and you are denied access unless you have the means.

You should have written “USA government agencies” and be aware that they don’t rule the world. In addition to this, if (as it still happens) the only two options to officially communicate with some Public Administration are:

  1. trash a perfectly working computer and buy a newer one powerful enough to run a recent version of Windows and Microsoft Office, only because the clerk who prepared and put online some form was so incompetent to create templates that without any real need work only in Microsoft Office, or fill the form with Microsoft Office macros that were not necessary at all (this is not an hypothetical case. One of the things that made the Munich City migration to FOSS much more complex than it could have been was exactly the fact that they found hundreds of useless macros that had to be removed

  2. waste time to mail or deliver in person a paper form

then the manager of that Administration is, in my opinion, violating his or her mandate to not waste taxpayers money.

With respect to this:

The substance of point 2 is that people who are not making material contributions to the project are at the whim of the developer–if and when the developer feels sufficiently generous with his or her time to turn their attention to the requests of non-material contributors. “Material” here means anything that proactively advances the project–financial resources, code contribution, providing a server (e.g. web hosting), etc

When it comes to any public service, that is the main context of the original article, ALL citizens are, by definition, “people who are making material contributions to the project, meaning anything that proactively advances the project–financial resources, code contribution, providing a server etc etc..” They pay for certain services with their taxes. When it comes to banks or other privately managed services, if they advertise that their accounts are “accessible by any computer period”, as is the case with some advertisements, is not, at least, a proper way to run a business.

Finally, I find assertions like these (even if referred to Universities, as you later wrote in another comment):

Textbooks: a necessary expense. A computer: a necessary expense. If you can’t afford the tools needed to accomplish a task, then don’t sign up for the task. Or, accept the fact that you will not be able to complete the task.

to be first of all stupid (from a purely technical point of view) and, as a consequence of it, also a bit disgusting. If an expense is necessary (be it a computer or anything else) it doesn’t mean that it is smart or tolerable to make it bigger than it has to be. Please note that this has nothing to do with who pays or should pay that expense, that is the government or the students.

If a computer is necessary to study these days OK, but why should it be compatible with the most expensive office suite around even when all you have to do with it to study is to write some report? That’s why I say that when a Public School that is officially meant by law to be accessible to all students without artificial barriers, at the lowest possible cost (as it’s still the case, formally at least, in Italy and plenty of other countries) requires with no objective reason the usage of specific office programs, well, that School is violating its mandate (even if that mandate doesn’t say explicitly “you will only use open file formats”). Personally, sorry but I can’t help it, finding nothing wrong with this feels a bit disgusting to me.