The correct way to use and advocate OO.o and the real reason to do it

(this is something I wrote in 2007. Everywhere you read “OO.o” you can (and should) replace it with “Apache OpenOffice or Libre Office”. See the bottom of the page for the origin and history of the text)

Many people, schools and small businesses use OO.o only because

it can be obtained and installed for free, maybe from a Cd-Rom attached to some magazine, without legal problems or exorbitant license fees. Some users love it because it is so similar to Microsoft Office. Others because they finally found something that, while compatible enough with Microsoft Office, is different from it. Others simply want or must use Gnu/Linux, where the suite is installed by default. The hardware requirements, while not exactly light, are also lighter than those of Microsoft Office and don’t force the user to buy new RAM or a whole new computer.

Now, these are all excellent, perfectly valid reasons to use this wonderful Office Suite, but not the real, most important one. If the ones above are the only drivers to run the OO.o programs, you may still end up without any real benefit for yourself, your business or society as a whole.

Have you ever stopped for a moment to ponder the exact reason why the original editions of Gutenberg’s Bible and many other great books of the past are still completely accessible to everybody who knows the corresponding language? Have you ever really realized the importance and fairness (both at the ethical and at the business level) of this long term accessibility? Its cultural and economical benefits are obviously enormous, but they are deeply dependent from how we create, access and preserve information combining three very different things:

  • Support, that is the physical media on which the data are preserved.

  • Data Format: the rules by which the information is encoded on the support

  • User Interface: the tools used to write and read the data according to the format almost always.

In order to make sure that knowledge is never lost or those who needs it are discriminated, Support, Format and Interface should be independent from each other. This was more or less granted when writing was invented. That old Support which is the Rosetta Stone contains information in a Data Format (the Hieroglyphs) which could have also been written on paper, papyrus or wood, through a User Interface made of any manual writing instrument and standard human eyes!

Today, after a weird era in which you could not save your music on 35 mm films or your photographs on vinyl albums, we can have all that flexibility back, just a thousand times better. In today’s digital world, different supports like hard drives, DVDs and Flash cards are potentially usable with different hardware and all contain the same bits that can represent wildly different types of information from text to movies. In this world, the Data format is based on file formats, that is the the set of rules specifying how each piece of data can and must be stored and marked inside a digital document. As far as the User Interface is concerned, it may be any software program which understands that file format is suitable, regardless of the hardware it runs on: (x86, Apple computer or cell phones) and, perhaps even more importantly, its license of use. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen all the time yet, thanks to an abuse of file formats.

Almost all software programs are worthless without information to process, store and display. Keep in mind that “information” here means anything from your blog entries or holiday movies to contracts and government reports or laws. Locking it in a secret or legally restricted format is the easiest way to keep selling you copies of a program, without really improving it. This practice, however, is already creating a lot of far-reaching problems and unnecessary waste of public money.

There is no doubt that, in order to remain accountable to citizens, courts and lawmakers, all Public Administrations must preserve their most important documents. Unfortunately, in many states electronic records are not acceptable yet just because of the lack of hardware and software standards. We are still stuck to archival quality microfilms or special paper, even if it is much more expensive and means no electronic indexing, no Internet access to data, no copies at almost null cost. This is no pocket money: according to a 2000 report, the cost for institutions to preserve, maintain, and keep accessible their electronic records ranges from $10,000 - $2.6 million per year per organization.

What is the real solution?

All this makes just as much sense as writing a book and being able to force everybody willing to read it, now or in the future, to do it only with a pair of glasses that they can only buy from you! As ridiculous as it seems, this is exactly the situation we are in today. Let’s now see how is all this related to As far as office documents are concerned, the only solution to this mess and the related huge waste of public and private money, is a really open file format, that is formats which are (from the European Interoperability Framework:

  • adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organization

  • developed through an open decision-making procedure

  • accompanied by a complete and entirely published specification available either freely

  • reusable without paying any royalty and without constraints

the current and future file formats used in Microsoft Office, including the last one, OpenXml, do not give these warranties, as explained here and here. In the office space, that is complex texts, multimedial presentations and interactive spreadsheets, the only realistic solution to all the problems we have seen is the OpenDocument format (ODF), the default file format in 2.x.

OpenDocument has been developed by an international consortium of big companies and has been ratified in 2006 as an ISO standard. These two conditions guarantee that it is completely documented and it won’t disappear overnight.

The conclusion is that the REAL reasons to use OO.o are these!

Background, added on 2013/09/24: in early 2007 a software magazine asked me to write an article on this topic. I sent the text above for review on March 11th, 2007. Then the piece was not published (for reasons I frankly don’t even remember anymore), the magazine disappeared less than two years later and I wrote about the same concepts anyway many other times, in other places. So I just forgot that that file existed until this morning, while I was searching for something else in my backups. Here it is, partly because of historical interest and partly because all the main concepts are still valid, and in my opinion very much needed; just keep in mind that today, whenever you read “OO.o”, you can and should mentally replace it with “whatever you like best between Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office”)