Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Reality and Opening Up Document Format Standards

Techweb reports on a current effort by a government entity -- this time it's Minnesota -- to open up document format standards. Here's an excerpt:

In conducting a theoretical search of the Minnesota state Web site, [state emloyee] Nesbitt observed that most of the results "come back as either HTML, PDF, or MS Word. The problem is that the latter two formats are owned by entities that could go out of business, charge significantly, make unannounced changes, sue others for creating similar technologies, act as a monopoly, or abort a product offering altogether. In those instances, there is very little the State could do about it."

There was a time when such eventualities were addressed by source code escrows that would guarantee a software user access to the tools to recreate and support a product, format, or system should the original vendor or developer go belly up. These days with the increasing popularity of open source and with widespread availability of tools for either substituting or end-running Microsft and Adobe formats (why buy Acrobat when OpenOffice can save to PDF?) proprietary data formats seem a holdover from a bygone era. Heck, just last week I used ajaxWrite to successfully (sort of) read, write, and save a .doc on a Mac here in the house that lacks a copy of MS Word.

Now, as sympathetic as I am to the cause,  I can still understand why some software makers might be reluctant to give up their intellectual property; I leave it to the attorneys to battle out whether or not document formats consist of copyrightable elements or are protected under trade secret law. If I were Microsoft I would not stand for appropriation of my intellectual property but for business reasons I would probably try to figure out a compromise approach that make document standards more accessible to facilitate cross-application read-write functionality. (I thought that was the direction the world was heading anyway -- maybe I was wrong.)

But there's a dirty little secret here that could be a real fly in the ointment of document interchangeability. That is, when you open and close documents using tools that are designed to preserve formatting, they never seem to work 100%, and only Zeus knows what is really happening under the hood when it comes to invisible document properties.

I mentioned using ajaxWrite recently to work on a Word document located on one of our Word-less Macs. The exercise was a success, but the conversion was not painless nor was it 100% successful. Let's say that it was successful enough. But it sort of reminded me of the old days when I was running both Windows and Macintosh versions of PowerPoint and, no matter what I did, there were still (usually subtle) incompatibilities between the two versions that would inevitably bite me at the wrong time (like when I was presenting front of a hall full of people).

So the devil is in the details. While I'm sympathetic to the Minnesota effort,  I don't think it's realistic to expect a brave new world where a common document format can be read and written to by multiple software applications from multiple vendors, especially given the need for compatibility with the "gold standard" of the .doc format.

Even if conversions in real time are 99% successful, that last 1% of incompatibility will cause some to wish for "the good old days" when everyone used Microsoft Word on Windows, "just as God intended."


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