I was staying with my parents a few years ago, and looking through a shoe box of old family photos. It was great, I was really enjoying them – until it occurred to me most of the photos were singletons. That is, they were the only copies. On earth. And of at least one individual from my family’s past, there were only two or three photographs in existence. Yipes.
A shoe box, I thought. How archaic, right? What if there were a flood, or heaven forbid, a fire? These are photographs I want to share with my family, and to pass along for generations. I want my children to know their history. And their children and their children.
So I did what any good son would do, I convinced my parents to let me abscond with the box, I returned home, and I scanned the photos (and returned the box).
And then the scanned photos were sitting on my hard drive. On my laptop. In my kitchen (that’s where my laptop lives).
Given what daily happens in my kitchen, that was probably less safe than a shoebox. So much for archaic. Strike one.
So I made a few DVD’s. And distributed them around my house, and gave some to other family members. Suffice it to say, most non-professional system administrators are non-professional for a reason – most of the DVD’s were lost. Strike two.
But good news, someone bright once said the network is the computer – I decided a while back to upload them to my on-line photo service. If you’re going to watch a shoe box, you may as well hire someone who’s watching other people’s shoe boxes, and may in fact be the best in the world at such a task.
And then I thought…
How do I guarantee the service will be around, or that I’ll be able to render the images I’ve stored there – not just in a year, but in five or fifty? What if the images outlive the technology?
And with that as a backdrop, now you understand at least one real world motivation behind something called the Open Document Format.
Imagine you’re a legislator that writes a law, or a doctor that drafts a patient’s record, or a student that writes a novel. And that five years or fifty years from now, you want to return to review your documents. Except the vendor that created the application used to draft those documents, the company that created the word processor, has either gone out of business, or decided to charge you $10,000 for a version capable of reading old file formats. Either scenario makes the point: Information always outlives technology.
What do you do?
First, you grumble. After all, the information you created is your information – not the vendor’s. Just like your family photos, the last thing you’d want is a camera company demanding payment before you could see your photos. And that’s the danger created by applications without open file formats. Remember, information outlives technology.
That’s why we, alongside some of the industry’s most important technology companies, and a bevy of governments and agencies around the world, created something called the Open Document Format (known affectionately as ‘ODF’). ODF defines an open format for document based information that’s independent of the applications used to create documents stored in ODF.
Which is a fancy way of saying if you write a law or a medical history or a regulatory filing in a word processor that supports ODF today, and need to gain access to it at any point in the future, you’ll have the freedom to do so on your terms. Without being held up by an application provider. ODF is a true open standard, adopted and implemented by a diversity of vendors (from IBM and Sun, to Google, Red Hat and now even Microsoft), and embraced by an amazing spectrum of the planet. And it’s royalty free.
Durability of information and file formats is exceptionally important to institutions or businesses with document retention policies that extend beyond the useful life of the software (and employees) creating the documents – and ensures the availability of information well into the future. The same applies to the photographs in the shoebox – as the CIO of my home, I want the images to outlive me.
And just in case you missed the menu item, we’re working with Google to ensure interoperability between Google’s office documents and OpenOffice documents – leveraging ODF as an exchange mechanism. Any document created in Google’s office can be trivially exported to (and soon imported from) OpenOffice (see the screenshot). Together, the two products allow businesses and individuals to preserve access, across the globe and across generations, for laws, legal contracts, patient records, diaries and strategic plans. Along with spreadsheets and presentations.
Finally, for those new to OpenOffice, it’s a free office productivity suite that will forever be free – to corporations and end users alike. As best we can count, we’ve distributed hundreds of millions of copies across the world (download here). And now that Microsoft has announced support for the Open Document Format, users can feel comfortable that OpenOffice can be added to any environment, home or office, not just across the developing world, but the developed. In a few weeks, you’ll be able to download an ODF plug-in here, which will enable Microsoft Word, by default, to save to/read from ODF. Once installed, you’ll see this in Word’s Options panel:
(I’ll provide a pointer when the plug-in is ready.)
From then on, ODF becomes your default format. Whether you’re an oil company or a high school student – ODF will enable seamless interoperability between open source and closed source environments – for as long as the standard, not the technology or product, exists.
From a corporate perspective, this also allows a very natural migration to occur across large institutions – front office staff might stay on Microsoft Word, but the rest of the organization can move to an interoperable alternative (say, Google’s word processor or OpenOffice – or both). Affordability and interoperability are a good thing for the internet – and for the successive generations we expect to use it.