Parable of a MS Word document

Inspired by Mark Shuttleworth‘s latest post

A friend of mine is pretty tech savvy and also very organised. He backs up all his files once a month, copied it to floppies earlier, onto CDs later and now to DVDs. He carefully catalogs those disks and stores it away. Who knows, what might be required at a later day!!

He has in his collection all the documents, he’s created over the years using a variety of tools – majorly Microsoft Office. He even has .doc documents that were created using Microsoft Word 3.0. And a lot of other spreadsheets (.xls) amongst others.

As any other tech savvy guy, he likes to keep his software always up-to-date. He has spent a fortune over the years on the Microsoft operating systems – DOS, Win 3.1, 95, 98, ME(!!), XP and now Vista !!! He has also bought all the Office versions right from the 3.0 days.

A great model customer for Microsoft. Nice! But so far, he hadn’t had any use for his disks. He didn’t want any of his documents from previous years. But, like any other intelligent investor, he still bought his insurance – made backups regularly.

Recently he’d upgraded his operating system from Microsoft Windows XP to Microsoft Windows Vista, and office from Microsoft Office XP to Microsoft Office 2007. As always, he muttered some profanities about absence of any compelling feature and that the program was stagnant from years now. Fine! He was ok with that.

Until last week! He was queried to provide a letter he’d sent to his customer some years back, in which he’d detailed the technical aspects of a work he’d done for them. They were happy with his work then and were looking for his services yet again. They wanted the letter to recommend him for the work, but had lost the letter and asked him for a copy of the same.

My much-organised-friend was more than happy, he looked up his catalogue – that he kept printed and filed away (:-P), checked out the disk which had the letter and popped it into his computer. The letter was typed using MS Word 95. But, it’s all .doc right ? Yeah! Now the fun started. He opened the letter in his latest spiffy Office 2007.

It opened and what did he see ? Garbled text!!!!!!! He was shocked. He thought the disk was damaged. But it was a CDROM, well maintained and he could open the other files – .PDF, .TXT, .JPG, everything else without any problem. Hmmm! After some googling, he found out it was some unexplained problem that occurred with newer versions of MS Office. He also found out, this version of MS Office would not help him solve his problem.

He had a brainwave. He still had his copy of the Original MS Office 95 (TM) lying around. Why not install it and get it open it up. It’ll take only a couple of minutes to do that right ? Wrong! He popped in the CD, clicked on Setup. It spewed out lots of complaints and aborted the installation. Huh!! He was stuck. I gave him a suggestion that he install his older copy of Windows 98 and try to install Office 95 on that :-P . He was horrified by the idea. How could he replace his latest Vista with some old buggy OS !!! And he would have to reinstall and redo all his customisations if he had to reinstall :-(

It was then, I asked him to install Open Office 2.0. He said, he didn’t have the license. I said, I had the license and an unlimited license at that ;-) I downloaded the latest build for Windows, installed and there it was. His letter opened perfectly well, which he took a printout and sent it across.

All’s well that ends well !! Not quite. This is not the end of the story. Proprietary formats like Microsoft’s .doc, .xls lock up documents [ಕನ್ನಡ]. Our documents. Our pieces of work. Our data.

So, for this reason a bunch of guys(!!) got together and came up with a standard specification – Open Document Format (ODF). This specification has been implemented in tools like OpenOffice, StarOffice, Abiword and is being adopted internally by several corporates and by several Governments the world over. And as usual, Microsoft wouldn’t agree. It came up with it’s own “Open” format specification, which can at best be described as an “open” container for it’s binary formulations.

Microsoft says, they have evolved the .doc format to such a level, now it can support all kind of media, supports versioning, is tied with several tools (Example), and hence the new .docx format should be the standard. Huh! People who are in the know have certain observations, which isn’t necessarily nice for Microsoft. Microsoft says, they’ll provide converters(!!) for various formats. I would rather write my own.

The advantages with Simple, Open and Featureful specifications such as ODF are that, it gives rise to several opportunities without having to depend upon it’s creator. And the best part is that these formats are always open.

My data should remain mine alone, not some blood hound corporation’s.

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