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Front Page » August 8, 2006 » Tech Tips » The Future of Your Files
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The Future of Your Files

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Imagine for a moment a world where automotive manufacturers don't adhere to industrial standards and specifications - where concern for the consumer is nil and buyers are treated like captive audiences.

In this world, each automotive company has their own measurement system. Wrenches that fit one brand of vehicle won't fit vehicles of another brand. Even the most basic parts, like nuts and bolts, are entirely non-interchangeable. And parts are so heavily patented by the manufacturers that it entirely inhibits 3rd parties from producing compatible parts at any reasonable cost.

Fluids are brand specific too. Gas manufactured for one brand cannot be put into the brand of another. Oil, engine coolant and other fluids are the same - they must be purchased from the original automobile maker.

In this imaginary world, the automobile industry is dominated and oligopolized by a handful of monolithic companies who easily trample emerging competition with massive civil suits over trivial patent violations. This ensures their continued stronghold on the industry.

Consumers are told that these "limitations" are actually the result of positive innovation and aren't bad things at all. With a dependence on the automobile and no viable alternatives (or knowledge of the problem), the consumer cedes and continues to do business with the industry.

In the real world, specifically the office software industry (word processing, spreadsheets, database connectivity, presentations, etc), many of the same problems exist - standards are largely ignored at the detriment of all consumers. The difference, however, is that the problem isn't as obvious. Many computer users aren't even aware that there is a problem.

The problem is that there are only a few dominant office productivity suite makers - and virtually all of them have opted not to adopt industry standards (particularly open file formats). Instead, they continue to use proprietary file formats that can only be fully opened, read and interpreted with their software.

Consumers are told that new features and other innovations require the use of their formats. While this might be partially true, these software makers fail to acknowledge that most of these new innovations are unused and unwelcome to most consumers, which only care about basic features and functionality.

It has been documented that most word processing users, for example, are content with the features that were present in most word processing programs developed in the late nineties. The percentage of users who find the latest word processing feature additions are very slim, and account for a very small portion of the market.

These office suite makers have been accused more than once of vendor lock-in. Essentially, vendor lock-in is a method in which a software maker will hold consumers captive via predatory pricing, unfair market influence and restrictive technical strategies (like using proprietary file formats) to make it difficult for consumers to switch to an alternative product. Such consumers are often forced to upgrade periodically to ensure continued access to their own files.

In other words, if users aren't forced to upgrade, they won't.

The fact is, people must come to the realization that their documents will outlive the software used to create the files. Down the road, when the original piece of software is gone or no longer available, how will you open those files? Its an issue computer users are going to deal with.

Some may argue, "many programs can open or save to alternative file formats." This is often true. For example, one can open a Corel WordPerfect document in Corel's WordPerfect word-processor and save a copy as a Microsoft Word file. Unfortunately, this isn't without many potential problems. Such conversions are never perfect and will never maintain 100% compatibility. Why?

1) Most proprietary file formats are encumbered by a myriad of software patents, which often inhibits other software makers from creating or developing compatible products due to threat of litigation.

2) Software producers have little interest in the details of file formats other than their own. The primary focus is on their own file formats, not on formats created by someone else.

3) Such capabilities are often done by reverse engineering the proprietary format, by dissecting files to see how they are structured, and how they operate on the inside. This process can only guarantee partial success at best.

4) Many software makers are deterred from adding compatibility support for alternative formats to their software because it often requires paying large royalty fees to the creators of the alternative formats.

4) Additional labor and planning costs often deter companies to add support for alternative formats.

The big question is, what happens when your office software is no longer recognized or supported by the maker of the software? What happens when your new PC won't run your old PC's office suite, and the latest office software won't read your existing files? If your files cannot be properly opened and interpreted, the contents are not available to you.

Open formats don't guarantee that your office productivity suite of today will be available tomorrow. What it does guarantee is that there will be software of tomorrow that will be able to successfully open and read your files of today.

So what should users do about this problem now? Consider switching to alternative programs that support open, unencumbered file formats. When possible, save your files in non-proprietary formats (although exchanging files with people who use proprietary formats makes this difficult).

PDF is a very open standard, and good for archiving. However, PDF is not good for files that may need editing in the future. A number of programs have PDF support, including 2.0.

For office productivity file formats (word processing, spreadsheets and the like), ODF (Open Document Format) is a good format because it is unencumbered by patents, and is not owned by any single software maker. 2.0, as well as KOffice (for Unix/Linux), AbiWord and several other office productivity suites already have good support for ODF. Corel has also promised to include ODF support in a future version of WordPerfect.

By adopting open formats, you can help guarantee your files are still available in the long haul.

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