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  4. <title>FSFE - Questions for Microsoft on open formats</title>
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  7. <h1>Questions for Microsoft on open formats</h1>
  8. <p>
  9. Originally published on BBC, 2007 July 11th.
  10. </p>
  11. <p>
  12. After Microsoft announced it would work with the UK National Archives to
  13. help open old digital document formats, Georg Greve and Joachim Jakobs,
  14. of the Free Software Foundation Europe, question the US giant's motives.
  15. </p>
  16. <p>
  17. Today's customers drive the technological development of tomorrow. This
  18. insight is common sense.
  19. </p>
  20. <p>
  21. But when the same customers pay one and the same company for first
  22. creating a problem and then pay them again for solving that problem, most
  23. people would expect the customer to be dissatisfied. Although, at least
  24. some people seem to be pleased.
  25. </p>
  26. <p>
  27. The problem: Microsoft dominates the desktop and office market
  28. with a share of more than 90%. Any document stored in their proprietary
  29. binary formats and especially every document shared between multiple
  30. people strengthens the monopoly and harms competition, economy and
  31. society as a whole.
  32. </p>
  33. <p>
  34. The more widely these formats are being used, the higher the network
  35. effect forcing others into the same dependency - just as it happened to
  36. the UK National Archives.
  37. </p>
  38. <p>
  39. What happened: Microsoft asked the UK National Archives to invest
  40. in a solution that would grant access to their legacy data.
  41. </p>
  42. <p>
  43. Only last week BBC News reported on Mr. Gordon Frazer, managing director
  44. of Microsoft UK, who voiced concern that customers could lose their own
  45. data: "Unless more work is done to ensure legacy file formats can be read
  46. and edited in the future, we face a digital dark hole."
  47. </p>
  48. <h3>Honest statement</h3>
  49. <p>
  50. This is a surprisingly honest statement from a company that is the
  51. largest provider of incompatible and undocumented legacy file formats in
  52. the world.
  53. </p>
  54. <p>
  55. The best solution Microsoft can apparently offer is to "emulate" the old
  56. versions of Windows under the current version of Windows Vista.
  57. </p>
  58. <p>
  59. Indeed some libraries and museums may want to offer an idea of the
  60. previous ages of computing, and not all of them may want to offer the
  61. fully authentic experience of running it on the old hardware to get the
  62. original "look and feel" of bygone times.
  63. </p>
  64. <p>
  65. But are the UK National Archives primarily a museum dedicated to
  66. preserving the original experience of ages and technologies long past? Or
  67. are they focused on archiving the knowledge, thoughts and ideas of the
  68. generations we build upon?
  69. </p>
  70. <p>
  71. The broad audience may not want to read Caesar in the hand writing of a
  72. particular scribe on the original clay tablets or skin.
  73. </p>
  74. <p>
  75. Images of them would normally be sufficient, although indeed most people
  76. would prefer a transcription on paper or screen may be sufficient.
  77. </p>
  78. <h3>Good translation</h3>
  79. <p>
  80. Even more people are probably served best with a good translation. File
  81. formats are the equivalent of the transcription, they encode the original
  82. writing into a form for storage.
  83. </p>
  84. <p>
  85. This idea is not new. Humankind has always sought to preserve its
  86. knowledge, as is documented by clay tablets, scrolls and cave paintings
  87. of ages long past.
  88. </p>
  89. <p>
  90. But while the storage medium can last for a very long time, sometimes the
  91. meaning is lost because the key to the information is lost.
  92. </p>
  93. <p>
  94. In modern terms: We no longer know the encoding used for the cave
  95. paintings.
  96. </p>
  97. <p>
  98. Digital information could potentially be stored without loss of quality
  99. for a very long time to come.
  100. </p>
  101. <p>
  102. But without knowledge about the encoding, our documents will become a
  103. meaningless series of ones and zeroes to future generations, just like
  104. cave paintings are too often meaningless bits of colour on stone to us.
  105. </p>
  106. <p>
  107. The best way to preserve the encoding is to spread it as far as possible,
  108. to make it a public good that is preserved with the same or higher
  109. diligence than the encoded information itself.
  110. </p>
  111. <p>
  112. At best, there is currently only one company that knows exactly how it
  113. has implemented its proprietary legacy file formats.
  114. </p>
  115. <p>
  116. If Microsoft had used Open Standards from the moment it was founded in
  117. 1975, this problem would not exist.
  118. </p>
  119. <p>
  120. In fact, the users of GNOME Office, Koffice or would have
  121. no problems reading documents written by users of Microsoft (MS) Office.
  122. </p>
  123. <p>
  124. As it is, the stability of the encoding completely depends on the future
  125. existence and behaviour of one company.
  126. </p>
  127. <p>
  128. Thanks to the co-operation of many companies that find themselves in
  129. strong competition, but understand the necessity of preserving the
  130. encoding, there is an Open Standard for office documents: the
  131. "OpenDocument format" (ODF), which is maintained and further developed by
  132. OASIS, an international e-business standardisation organisation, and has
  133. been certified by the International Organisation for Standardization
  134. (ISO).
  135. </p>
  136. <h3>Serious doubts</h3>
  137. <p>
  138. Microsoft has said it has its own open format, called MS-OOXML. But there
  139. are serious doubts whether MS-OOXML can be considered an Open Standard:
  140. Like a Russian doll, it wraps a number of legacy formats like "Word95" or
  141. "Word6", which are not publicly available and can only be implemented by
  142. Microsoft.
  143. </p>
  144. <p>
  145. Another issue is that OOXML may be subject to patent claims. Ultimately
  146. the development of the format depends completely on the future existence
  147. of one company. Can we bet our future on Microsoft to exist in 4007?
  148. </p>
  149. <p>
  150. The impact of such dual standards was recently explained by Open Forum
  151. Europe, a business association with members such as Fujitsu Siemens,
  152. Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell and Sun.
  153. </p>
  154. <p>
  155. Their conclusion was to back ODF: "Multiple Open standards in the area of
  156. Interoperability are unwelcome, costly and impractical for both users and
  157. suppliers, and will be rejected by the market."
  158. </p>
  159. <p>
  160. The public needs to understand: As long as only Microsoft can write
  161. software that will be able to make use of the full extent of the
  162. predominant office file format, Microsoft will remain the predominant
  163. vendor for lack of alternatives and competition.
  164. </p>
  165. <p>
  166. In order to make MS-OOXML the predominant file format, Microsoft is now
  167. seeking approval through ISO for its format, expecting its market
  168. dominance and global lobbying efforts to coerce a sufficient amount of
  169. national standardisation bodies into approving MS-OOXML at ISO.
  170. </p>
  171. <p>
  172. We have laid down six questions we want Microsoft to answer - but the key
  173. one is this: Why did and does Microsoft refuse to participate in the
  174. existing standardisation effort?
  175. </p>
  176. <h2>Related reading</h2>
  177. <ul>
  178. <li><a href="/documents/msooxml-interoperability.html">Interoperability woes with MS-OOXML</a></li>
  179. <li><a href="/documents/msooxml-idiosyncrasies.html">DIS-29500: Deprecated before use?</a></li>
  180. <li><a href="/documents/msooxml-questions.html">Six questions to national standardisation bodies</a></li>
  181. <li><a href="/documents/msooxml-converter-hoax.html">The Converter Hoax</a></li>
  182. </ul>
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