Monday, May 14, 2007

LGM: Why Open Standards Matter

The first English talk of the Libre Graphics Meeting was given by Louis Suárez-Potts, Senior Community Manager of, and as far as I can see, quite the idealist. The talk was called "Why Open Standards Matter: The Open Document Format" and discussed digital documents in general, the Open Document Format in particular, and freedom as a responsibility.

Mr. Suárez-Potts tells his audience that he is a bit of a historian and treats us to his version of, essentially, the development of documents. Long ago, all formats were available to anyone who had the right education. Special tools were not needed. Unfortunately, it was the politically powerful that controlled the ability to learn the skills required to produce and consume the documents; that is, the powerful more or less owned the information. Fortunately, the formats themselves could be considered transcendental.

Fast forward to today. With modernity comes accessible education, which results in the "exchange and discovery of ideas with the past, present, and future." While politics no longer endangers our information, Mr. Suárez-Potts argues that technology does.

The big bad guys of the day are the Microsofts of the world and their proprietary document formats. "Democracy [and] modernity [are] challenged by a neo-feudalism, and collective memory [is] lost." That is to say that the proprietary digital formats of the day are in the control of the elites who own them.

Indeed, according to Mr. Suárez-Potts, the "triumph of modernity ... comes to nothing if the formats capturing personal and collective memory are proprietary." So when a company (like Microsoft, just for argument's sake) goes out of business, it takes all that knowledge about its closed format with it, locking away the information stored within.

The moral of the story is that while proprietary technology seeks to limit the ability for others to intervene, free information promotes commercial and cultural growth, and open standards impose no limits.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on what Mr. Suárez-Potts has said so far. He argues that the formats used throughout history have transcended time; it was simply a matter of the average simpleton not having the money, status, or power to learn how to access it. Now that that blocker has essentially been removed, we have been able to go back and recover the information left behind.

I'm not convinced that knowledge stored in proprietary formats will be any different, even if the reasons behind the "closed-ness" are different.

After thousands of years since Egyptian hieroglyphs were regularly used, we have been able to decipher the meaning behind discovered texts. Granted, it took a long time -- explanations and translations had been attempted as early as the fifth century, but success came as late as the nineteenth century -- but determination and careful study prevailed.

Egyptian hieroglyphs once had an "open" standard in the sense that the meaning of various glyphs was well known as the knowledge of how to read and write them was passed down through the generations. It wasn't until the fourth century that few Egyptians could read hieroglyphs and the format became, in a way, closed.

If the knowledge stored in the hieroglyphs was not lost, why should we consider the data in an MS Word file as such? Furthermore, if an "open" standard like hieroglyphs could be lost over time, then who's to say the same thing can't happen to the Open Document Format and other such standards? Finally, what about the possibility that the way documents are digitally stored will give way for something we can't even fathom, not unlike the way that carving in stone gave way to paper and paper gave way to computers?

Back to the presentation.

The Open Document Format, or ODF, is purported to have no secrets, and be completely transparent and accountable. It is about encouraging the reuse of standards. However, it is important to avoid confusion about ODF -- it is not an application, it is just a standard. It needs to be implemented in software like OpenOffice to be useful.

Apparently governments and other areas of the public sector are finally warming up to the idea of open standards. Although many of these formats are implemented in free software, many potential users have seen open source as a source of pain rather than value, and figured the community creating it must be full of communists or some such thing. However, those that do use it may be buying into the notion that "only by focusing on open source can nothing happen." This "nothing" boils down to the loss of important data.

Though not the final point in the presentation, the last part that meant much to me was Mr. Suárez-Potts' assertion that buying proprietary software is like buying into an addiction. He also pointed out that Microsoft's OOXML format has a specification ten times the size of the Open Document Format, so even though it is technically open, it is too hard to implement and could pretty much be considered closed in the end.

I may be missing his point here, but Mr. Suárez-Potts' assertion that buying proprietary software is somehow a terrible evil was pretty insulting. Especially coming from a guy that happily booted up his beloved MacBook with which to give his presentation. Oh, wait -- Mac is "cool," so I guess it's ok to like "cool" proprietary products.

Louis Suárez-Potts is obviously a smart man. He even has a PhD in English. But his message was partially lost on me because of his extreme attitudes. I am convinced there is a place for open standards in the digital world, but I don't buy the notion that information is all but locked away when it is stored in proprietary formats.


Albert said...

Independently of Louis Suárez-Potts, you may find amusing a parable titled "The right to read" and written by Richard Stallman as a scifi story:

It made my hair chill.

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated - please be patient while I approve yours.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.