My friend tells me that it’s just a few days until Wrestlemania — pro wrestling’s flagship annual event. This Sunday (sunday…sunday), thousands of fans will show up to see
luchadors pro-wrestlers perform in a small ring, throwing each other about and providing a spectacle of a performance for those in the bleachers and for the million or two at home. Given the imminent match-up, I find it quite fitting that The Document Foundation (TDF) has just announced the creation of the Document Liberation Project, a “home for the growing community of developers united to free users from vendor lock-in of content.”
On the face of things, one might not see a close comparison between computers and big, brawny men, but if you delve into the world of file formats and software, you’ll see how a fight is being waged every day — on desktops and laptops around the world.
For years, computing in governments, schools, and at home has been dominated by proprietary software and closed file formats. When you save your budget presentation in MS-Powerpoint, or make a few modifications to a layered graphic in Adobe PhotoShop, chances are good that the files you end up with on your hard drive are in a proprietary file format that can only be opened successfully by the program that made them. Even if you have a later version of that same program, you might not be able to open your original files because the company decided for business reasons to drop support for older file formats. Please understand, this isn’t some kind of hypothetical situation that we dreamed up: Users today are upgrading their computers, loading up new versions of software, and running into a dead end. It happens.
The reason this is happening is because proprietary software companies are beholden to a number of different interests, namely all of their shareholders. The engineers inside these companies often have their own opinions and truly wish to help users and support them and their data on an ongoing basis, but the engineers don’t call the shots, and they don’t control the direction of and the decisions made about the project. When it becomes economically unsound for a proprietary software company to continue supporting a piece of software, or when it is easier for them to break backwards-compatibility with a file format, they can unilaterally decide to do so — their existing users be damned.
Sure — Free/Open Source Software projects sometimes decide for the health of the project to break backwards compatibility, but when they do so their existing users are perfectly free to keep using, developing, and fixing the old version of the product. When Python decided to introduce some incompatible changes into Python 3, they spent a very long time planning the process, introduced tools to help users convert Python 2 code to Python 3, and provided advice on how to migrate. Even with all the new development in Python 3, users will still able to decide when (and if) they wanted to make that change. That’s something you’ll never get from a piece of proprietary software. You just don’t have the freedom to make that kind of decision.
With the rise of LibreOffice in 2010, people who promoted the use open file formats and Free Software had a new ally, and many who were previously unable to divorce themselves from tools like Word and Excel found themselves with a new, free tool that could meet all of their word-processing and spreadsheet needs. With a new non-profit behind LibreOffice, reduced barriers to project participation, and a clear mission for the decade ahead, a chance for a change was at hand.
In the last four years, an increasing number of people and projects have migrated to LibreOffice, with individual migrations saving millions of Euros and converting 37,000 desktops to Free Software. In France, the total number of Gendarmarie (police force) computers running LibreOffice is set to double to 75,000 by this summer. I’m not ready to call 2014 the “Year of Linux on the Desktop” quite yet, but it’s my belief that adoption of LibreOffice will increase globally as more governments see the clear advantages that it — and a FOSS stack underneath it — provide to workers, citizens, and schoolchildren alike. But there’s one piece of the puzzle missing here — something that LibreOffice and other projects have worked on separately to this point — that deserves a grander focus if we are to truly free ourselves and our data from our digital shackles: Legacy File Formats.
To the 9th grader pulling an all-nighter, trying to finish a paper that he should have started 2 weeks ago, any file on his computer aside from the one LibreOffice Writer file that contains 2,328 words on the Industrial Revolution is essentially meaningless. Headphones on, Mountain Dew in hand, he’s on a mission to finish 9 spell-checked, 1″-margined pages of awesome. Or adequate. He’d take adequate, at this point. But 10 miles away, in the department of the county clerk, “adequate” just isn’t going to cut it when the staff needs to verify data in their records from 1992. In the two decades since then, the department has seen multiple operating system and software upgrades, and nobody in the office remembers what tools they used to create the marriage license records so long ago. Even if they did remember, they’re not sure if anyone has the floppy disks for the software, and they’ve taken all of their old computers to be recycled, so they’d have to hope that they could get the old software running on modern hardware…somehow.
At its founding, TDF realized that closed, legacy, and proprietary file formats were all impediments to the widespread adoption of open formats and Free/Open Source Software. Furthermore, even if an individual or organization chose to use open formats for all future projects, legacy or historic data could still be stuck in old, unreadable formats, keeping an organization saddled with the task of maintaining key old systems for the purpose of running a single, out-of-date application to access important data. With modern proprietary formats, people feel obligated to keep using the same software year after year, as all of their current data is similarly confined. The creation of The Document Liberation Project this week represents the culmination of an ongoing effort within LibreOffice and other FOSS projects to “empower individuals, organizations, and governments to recover their data from proprietary formats and provide a mechanism to transition that data into open file formats, returning effective control over the content from computer companies to the content authors.”
As an increasing number of companies and municipalities realize that there’s a sane way to escape from the software lock-in that has permeated technology purchasing decisions for the last decade, we’ll see bigger and bigger changes ripple across the industry. Already, MS-Office has implemented native support for the Open Document Format (ODF), hedging their bets to try to win-back support in markets where FOSS solutions like GNU/Linux + LibreOffice have already gained steady users. While I salute their inclusion of open file formats, I wonder if their efforts are too few and too late. If the market for office software follows the trends of the Browser Wars, Microsoft may be seeing its global dominance slip precipitously, just as use of Internet Explorer has plummeted over the last decade. With LibreOffice ready to provide excellent tools for the creation of new content, and The Document Liberation Project working to excavate old content including files from WordPerfect, Microsoft Works, and MacWrite, I see this tag-team duo poised to deliver the 1-2 combo necessary to knock-out proprietary formats in business and government globally.
But don’t celebrate yet — we still have a fight to win, and need to convince students, teachers, elected officials, and everyday citizens that open formats and Free/Open Source Software like LibreOffice are what we should be using today. As strange as it may seem to the geeky among you, most people in the US don’t even know that these exciting, free (and Free) things exist.