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Proprietary file format lock in

Proprietary file format lock in.

This I feel is the greatest problem for people, especially academics when wanting to switch to GNU/Linux. Many people in my family work at universities in the UK. These people would happily switch to GNU/Linux tomorrow if it could run their .doc and other proprietary file formats properly.

Don't say "hey, but OpenOffice can open and write .doc files!" - indeed it can, but formatting such as tables and footnotes are notorious for not being the same in OpenOffice as they were originally in Microsoft Word. This isn't to say the hackers who have worked on getting .doc files to open in OpenOffice have done a bad job, one must commend them on the work they have done, it's fine for the odd personal letter or school essay, but I don't feel isn't ready for professional use.

Academics here in the UK may receive up to twenty .doc files a day. These will mainly be administration and grant forms to fill in as well as articles to review. The former uses tables and other such editing facilities throughout, and the latter will be full of footnotes and references, neither handled well by OpenOffice.

So what are these people to do? An option is that the academics install GNU/Linux and if they receive a proprietary file format such as .doc that they email the people that sent it with a message for them asking for the document in a free format. The problem is that academics are terribly busy people, especially with the looming RAE. They hardly have time to reply to the emails sent with the file in a proprietary format, having to ask for files in a free format would be too time consuming.

Since academics don't have time to fight against the norm, which in their institutions are proprietary file formats, the only way I see to fix this problem is to change the norm. If the norm were to use free and open file formats such as the Open Document Format they would not be tied into an operating system. OpenOffice works on many platforms including both GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows, so the academics could choose themselves which operating system they want to use, and not have it imposed by their job. Under these circumstances members of my family would easily choose to use GNU/Linux over Microsoft Windows.

Not only would moving to free and open file formats give choice of operating system back to the academic, it would also mean that the cash strapped Universities wouldn't have to shell out on as many licenses for products such as MS Office. It could also mean that they themselves could switch to operating systems such as GNU/Linux and save money on operating system licenses as well as being able to use older hardware for longer (with the right distribution of GNU/Linux).

Another reason academic institutions should strongly consider free and open file formats is for history's sake. Historians at the moment spend a lot of time going to libraries and reading through books. In the future many texts will not exist in a physical form, they will only exist in a digital form. What will happen when historians go back and find proprietary file formats which aren't documented, have no software to open them or require an expensive license to view? The history may very well be written off as inaccessible and forgotten, or the corporations may have imposed restrictions on what parts of a file are published in a way reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty Four's Ministry of Truth. Do we wish our history be dictated by these proprietary file formats? No we do not.

Proprietary file formats lock people in. So I feel the hardest part of switching over to free and open file formats is the initial change. When all people know that proprietary file formats are bad there will still be the problem of lock in. What will people do with all their documents that are locked in proprietary formats? I don't know if there is a good and easy way to convert proprietary formats into free ones, but I doubt there is, due to the fact the formats are proprietary. Without people being able to make this fundamental conversion, breaking out of proprietary file formats will be very hard, and thus the term 'lock in' is very apt.

From this I hope you have some more understanding of why free and open file formats are important. By having them we secure our choice of operating system, we release teaching and research institutions from the stranglehold of software license fees, and we protect our history from being controlled by corporations, but will the very existence of proprietary file formats mean we can never live without them?

Comments

Indeed. You've nicely

Indeed. You've nicely outlined the reasons why proprietary file formats are a problem in a way that should be easy to understand.

To attempt to address your last question which, I suppose, implies that certain parts of history and culture are now forever locked into them, I think that it doesn't necessarily have to be so. No matter how hard a job it may be, if people realize the importance of their availability in free formats organizations could be founded to manually convert those works into free formats. Once that job is done and all further works are done in free formats we can start completely casting away the proprietary formats.

But that of course requires a very large amount of awareness of this problem and alot of people who care about it. As you said, the norm should be changed, but that in itself is hard to do. Sounds like some academics should dedicate their professional career to this problem alone..

Quote: No matter how hard a

Quote:

No matter how hard a job it may be, if people realize the importance of their availability in free formats organizations could be founded to manually convert those works into free formats.

This sounds apt for Google and their book digitising program (though I don't know what file formats they use). Though I feel any manual way would be impossible since there are billions of locked in files out there, though it could be used for the most important ones.

The only real way I see a conversion of the current proprietary file formats to free and open ones would be to make proprietary ones illegal, and thus forceing information on the proprietary file formats into the open so that they can be used freely as themselves or converted into better formats.

Great Article. Proprietary

Great Article. Proprietary lock ins are definitely a huge problem.
It is a real shame that so many people either simply do not know they have open alternatives or worse just do not even care.

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