Since 1996 I was involved in the Open Source community, trying to contribute as much as I could to promote the use of open technologies. During this time many things happened in the industry, the community and my understanding of things as well.
After all these years I reached a personal conclusion: No matter how much Open Source Software is promoted or advocated, it will completely fail as far as formats are still closed.
Every one of us is, in some way, technology dependent, and companies as well. Specially companies! So, being dependent of technology from an abstract point of view is nothing bad, humans depend on it since the discovery of fire. Anyway being dependent on a specific technology means to become a slave of that technology provider.
Many companies don’t understand this important approach to technology. They need to get the job done and adopt a particular technology without a previous analysis about the impact of that decision in the future. The parameters some companies take care of are usually just price and support. That’s not enough. But also, sometimes it’s not possible to do a deep analysis of every product or technology that will be adopted; further, a serious analysis will not provide enough information or a realistic projection of the future and consequences.
Here is where Open Formats come to help and really solve this dependency problem. Why Open Formats and not Open Source? Because Open Source Software is not enough. For instance, OpenOffice. It is a great software suite, it is Open Source and its default format is the Open and widely tested and adopted OpenDocument Format (ODF).
I saw how some companies decided to use it as a replacement of Microsoft Word, saying “Cool! it’s a free cost Word to read Word docs!”.
This approach is foolish and irresponsible. They are just changing the software, for an Open Source one, but they still depend on the format. In this case the Microsoft Word document format. The technology dependency link didn’t get broken and sooner or later they will come back to Word and probably will blame the adoption of OpenOffice as a wrong decision.
Open Formats free us from that dependency, eliminating the unique link to the provider. For example, using the ODF document format, won’t link us to OpenOffice. It will link us to a Free and Open Format that frees us to use any software available to deal with such format. It also opens the possibility to create our own tools to operate with this format. It doesn’t matter if the Software is Open or Close as far as the critical information for our business is not linked under a dependency threat owned by a third party provider. Using Open Formats will assure this freedom from the provider dictatorship and will also open the market for other companies to create more competitive products that deal with an Open Format.
To avoid term confusions, let’s see them again:
- Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), doesn’t necessarily free us from technology dependence as far as the formats we use are still closed.
- Open Formats free us from any dependency link. We don’t depend on Close and Proprietary applications neither Open Source ones.
- FOSS, from a consumer point of view guarantees that our software tools will not die in time, perhaps by the bankruptcy of the company that developed them. Also FOSS guarantee the freedom from our side to modify, copy and distribute the software freely. FOSS make a switch from the unique product provider-support approach to the independent product provider-support approach, leaving an open road for competitive quality of service instead. Ok, it’s great! But anyway it doesn’t assure that our data will be available after 50 years from its conception. FOSS is just a tool, not the logical base for our data to last long. The format of our information will determine in a long term our real dependency and flexibility to technological changes. For example, a huge amount of the data collected in the first expeditions to the Moon is lost due cryptic and closed data formats used at that time…
The Format is the armor that makes possible information to be transferred, stored and visualized. Therefore, if the format is Open and free of royalties, this will assure that we will ALWAYS have our data available no matter what happens to the market, providers and technology.
To view a list of the most common open formats, check the wiki.