11 September 2005

Massachusetts opts for open file formats

An article on Forbes states that Massachusetts has proposed
that at the beginning of 2007 it is planning to order all state employees to create and save documents using only open format software.
The permissible formats would be OpenDocument, which is the free OpenOffice's native format, and Adobe's PDF format. Both of these formats are royalty-free, meaning that any software — including Microsoft's, if they ever get over their loathing of anything that doesn't produce royalties — is free to read and write them without charge.

Open formats are, for users, an unreservedly Good Thing. Think of plain text files, the ones whose names probably end in ".txt" on your computer. How many times have you not had a program which could open them? As far as I know, every text editor and word processor available today can read and write a plain text file — on my laptop, I count 68 programs which know how to read them.

On the other hand, if you get e-mailed a Visio file, as a client of mine did recently, but don't own Visio, you're out of luck. This is especially true in a place like Cambodia, where the correct version of the program you need may not be available at any price.

Another problem is that you may need to read an old file, but the program that created it runs only on hardware that you no longer have. Having that file in an open standard dramatically increases your chances of being able to read it, since you're not locked into a single, possibly defunct, software vendor.

One further advantage of using open standards is that an organization can specify what file formats and communication protocols an employee's computer needs to support, rather than mandating what specific hardware and software that computer must have. This allows employees to use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. This in turn can reduce support costs, since those users generally already know how to — and, just as importantly, want to — fix most problems on their preferred platform.

So hooray for Massachusetts. I'm expecting many national governments in Asia to do something similar. And if enough places, and enough companies, insist on open standards, maybe Microsoft will someday decide it's in their interests to play nicely with the other kids on the block. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

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