Shall we waste twelve more years promoting Free office suites instead of open office formats?


Twelve (TWELVE!!!) years ago I asked OpenOffice users “Are you advocating OO correctly”.

Six years ago I said the same things in a different format. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a perfect proof that that kind of advocay IS right, but so far has been never practiced enough.

Twelve years ago I wrote (the whole thread is still in the archives) that:

most of [OpenOffice] advocacy, while always in good faith, is often incomplete, misleading, and much less effective than what it could be.

because “even in our community MS Office formats remain as inherent to the intimate structure of matter as Maxwell’s equations, and just as untouchable. Many times we use OO just to keep us afloat in a proprietary format world, to look as we too are regular guys who know how to do serious business. And we spend a lot of energy in developing and updating filters dealing with somebody else’s marketing whims.”

I proposed, instead, to advocate OpenOffice correctly, that is to:

  1. reject all email with MS Office attachments, asking the poster to stop… and send OO original formats instead?
  2. complain with all sites that make available files for download only in MS formats
  3. send files around only in OO native format, instead of “saving them as…”

So far, this procedure has never been practiced as it should have been. THIS is why, in October 2013, we still see this kind of reports of docx problems:

“I have been doing business as a freelance translator for 10 years, using only FREE/OSS, (OmegaT, OpenOffice, etc., on Debian GNU/Linux) without any major issues.”

“Now, suddenly, every time a client sends me a .docx file, I get a complaint when I return their documents that the formatting has changed (tables are different, fonts changed, bullets disappear, or, worse, they can’t even open the document, although it opens fine here).”

“It’s ruining my business. I’m losing clients, losing money, and I have a family to feed. And I don’t know what to do about it. OpenOffice won’t write to .docx, and LibreOffice messes them up…”

and the only practical advice it is possible to give them remains, in 2013:

“Other than using MS Word (and probably even the version your clients use at that), there is no guarantee that docx will work the same on your system as on your client’s.”

”…with docx documents and with LO in general, best solution is to have a pc with linux and virtual box for running WIN7 and original MS Office.”

Formats… and users

100% compatibility (whatever that means), 100% of the times, with a file format that exists just to be changed continuously to prevent true compatibility is, by definition, impossible. It is stupid both to ask for it, and to try to achieve it. It was obvious twelve years ago, but it should be even more obvious today, if “to use LibreOffice with .docx files, keep a copy of MS Office around” still is sensible advice.

To make things worse, this fact of life is complicated by, and deeply interconnected with, other, much deeper issues that have nothing to do with proprietary or open formats per-se:

  • too many users of ALL office suites are incompetent
  • many office document templates used today in all organizations deserve to die.

Many “compatibility” problems, even among different versions of Microsoft Office, are nothing else but users managing digital documents as they would handle paper ones with a typewriter, without the smallest clue of what fonts, formatting etc actually mean. How many times you have seen, in this century, people still centering titles by pressing the space bar on their keyboard, instead of the “align center” button of their word processor or styles?

Too many office documents are over-engineered, micro-managed to death, much more complex than they should be or, when they do have to be complex, are done in the wrong way, that is without styles, etc. It’s wrong to label problems coming from this as “software compatibility issues”.

To summarize, most “compatibility” problems are in fact some combination of:

  • people asking impossible things because nobody told them the difference between file formats and computer programs (have you noticed that nobody laughs in your face, as they should, when you tell them “I’ve sent you a PowerPoint”?), or why the former are separate, and much more important, than the latter. Not even Free Software advocates
  • people that use whatever office suite is available in the wrong way

Abandoning desktop software for the mystic “cloud” won’t solve these “compatibility” problems, or make file formats issues a thing of the past. Bruce Byfield is right to say that we may have reached the peak of office suites. Even in that case, however, we’ll still need offline backups AND documents editable without Internet access, for lots of reasons like privacy, lack of connectivity, or long-term archival. We will still need, in other words, a decent, sophisticated office format, and that format better be ODF, because it could not be anything else at this point.

We already needed more adequate computer education centered on “Open Formats First” in 2001. Shall we waste twelve more years before doing it?

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