Open File Formats

The state of Massachusetts is defining that all government documents should be in an open format. Quite right too. Any government department should ensure that all documents are produced in a form that anyone can read the data – for ever and without payment to any third party licence fees.

The state of Massachusetts is defining that all government documents should be in an open format. Quite right too. Any government department should ensure that all documents are produced in a form that anyone can read the data – for ever and without payment to any third party licence fees.

The problem with the approach that they are taking is that defining that Microsoft Office XML standards are open. It also appears that Microsoft appears to be offering a licence to read this documents that confirms to this open standard. However, I think this openness is illusary and should not be allowed. For me the key reasons are

  • The licence is extremely tightly worded to imply that whilst you might be able to develop software to read these formats, you can’t distribute this software to others
  • You can’t write software to write to these formats
  • The formats are defined arbitarily by Microsoft and are not guarenteed not to change.

All this means that sometime in the future it could well be that future generations do not have access to applications which can read and manipulate these documents.

There is a standard, OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument), that can be used to xchange documents across the network. The next release of openoffice.org (2.0) will support this as its default standard.

I would like to encourage everyone to adopt this standard as their default exchange mechanism. If we can build up enough momentum behind this, then a few years down the line we will have a standardised mechism everyone can use – and hopefully prevent archive material disappearing never to be readable again