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Crushed by the Wheels of Industry

Commentary--Jeremy Allison gives an 11-year-old a new excuse. He lost her homework in the Open Document Format vs. OfficeOpenXML standards fiasco.
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Written by Jeremy Allison on

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my employer.]

Commentary--Being the geek in the family can get you in trouble. I was sat at a social function with my wife's friends, all happily chattering away in Mandarin. I can barely count to ten in the language so meaningful conversation is a little difficult unless it's about arithmetic. I got bored, which is always a dangerous thing.

"My daughter has a new computer, would you help set it up ?" asked one of my wife's friends. "I'd love to," I replied. Finally, something to do that I would enjoy!

It was a new laptop with Windows Vista installed. I'm still amazed at how quickly the sales channel cleared of Windows XP computers, leaving Vista the only product on offer. I recently had to buy my brother a new laptop to replace the one he had stolen from his house (he lives in Sheffield in the UK where such things are not uncommon, unfortunately), and even at Frys electronics here in the valley I had to search in the "discontinued" bin to get him a machine with Windows XP installed. Although a brand new machine this thing booted slowly.

"Can you put some useful software on there; stuff she can use to do her homework?," he said. His daughter is around eleven years old so was probably starting to have to write essays at school. "Sure. Does she have an Office suite installed?" I asked. "There's a demo one on there I think but I think it's expensive to buy the real version," he said. I checked, it was the trial version of Microsoft Office 2007, installed by default by the vendor. I knew just the thing to do and started to download OpenOffice.

I grabbed lots of freely available software from the Web. All of it useful, most of it fun and educational. Not all of it "Free Software" of course, some proprietary software available "free for personal use". I may be dogmatic about freedom on my own machines, but when setting up for a child I'm not going to try and preach the Free Software religion, like some dotty old uncle rambling on in the corner. I set up OpenOffice to save by default in the Microsoft Office file formats so she wouldn't have to worry about swapping files with her friends and teachers.

Feeling very pleased with myself I started to show off all the new things I'd set up on the machine. "... and you even have a free office suite for your homework, compatible with Microsoft Office." I proudly announced at the end of the demo. "Great, can I see the homework I've already done?" she asked. Her father had told me this was a brand new machine, and I didn't know she'd been using it for a while, but overconfident in my skills I navigated over to her "Documents folder", and to my dismay saw several files - ending not in .DOC as I expected, but in .DOCX. This is the new document format, OfficeOpenXML, introduced by Microsoft for Office 2007. I'd completely forgotten about this, not being a Microsoft Office user (I'm waiting until there's a Linux port). I tried opening them in OpenOffice. No deal. Now being tidy by nature I'd removed the trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 in order to save space. An eight-hundred megabyte download and lots of tedious registrations later (I used my email address instead of hers for the "helpful product messages" it promised to send. It seemed the least I could do) and the trial version was reinstalled.

"I'll just convert these back to the .DOC format the older versions use. That's most likely the version you have at school." I told her. But when I read the files in Word 2007 and eventually found the "Save As" entry in the new menu system I discovered to my horror it was grayed out. "This feature is only available in the full version of Office 2007." popped up a helpful little message. "Click here to purchase it." Getting increasingly worried, I decided to try a more desperate measure. I selected the whole file and looked for the "Copy and Paste" option. I might lose the formatting this way, but at least I'd get the text of the essay she'd written. Copy and paste were disabled in the same way, and with the same message.

Copy and paste were disabled. Think about the fear and paranoia that led to that decision in the product design meeting for the trial version. "We want people to save in the new formats. The new formats are better." So much so that all customer choice must be disabled by default. Choice is an optional extra, only available after purchase. The new Office .DOCX format happens to be incompatible with OpenOffice as well. Quite by accident I'm sure. What this means is that if you use the trial version of Office 2007 for thirty days, all documents you create will be completely unreadable by any other software unless you buy back access to your documents by purchasing the full version of the software. No easy way to get your documents out.

The story does have a happy ending. Being a geek I did get the data out. But I was very embarrassed about it. I got her to email the documents to me, and used the OfficeOpenXML (.DOCX format) translator that was created by my friend Michael Meeks at Novell. I still have one old SuSE Linux virtual machine around at home so I can fix bugs in Samba for my old company, and this was enough to install the translator into the Novell version of OpenOffice and retrieve the text. I emailed her back .DOC format files which she was happy with (and hopefully her homework got handed in on time). I also learned an important lesson about not making assumptions about what people need and expect, and I will be a little more careful next time.

Hopefully this is an instructive lesson in the usefulness of public, open standards. In collaboration with others, OpenOffice.org has created and standardized the Open Document Format (ODF) standard. Had both word processors supported Open Document Format as an option then it wouldn't have mattered if she had been using Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or any other common word processor. Possibly complex formatting or presentation information wouldn't have translated, but for most people all they're trying to do is write a document in such a a way that it looks attractive so their management will like it. Or to get a good grade on homework. A open document format is such an obvious public benefit that I'm surprised it took so long to be standardized.

Please help support Open Document Format in your local or national government, community or school. As you may have noticed if you follow the press, there's a lot of lobbying going on for and against, and it needs all the popular support it can get. If you don't you might end up getting left with the tower of babel document formats we have now, where people who can't afford to buy proprietary office software can't communicate with their government or most businesses. This isn't good for them, and isn't good for society as a whole. Write to your representatives and tell them public money can be saved by standardizing on ODF. Once plug-ins are available for Microsoft Office they can continue to use the software they've already bought, so this doesn't even mean a wholesale switch of existing software or retraining cost.

Being a geek, I'll leave you with a puzzle. I did work out a another way I could have retrieved her homework files without having to use a DOCX translator. Can you think of what I might have in mind ? Let me know what you would have done in this circumstance. In true Open Source fashion let's work out how to solve the problem in as many ways as we can think of!

Jeremy Allison is one of the lead developers on the Samba Team, a group of programmers developing an Open Source Windows compatible file and print server product for UNIX systems. Developed over the Internet in a distributed manner similar to the Linux system, Samba is used by all Linux distributions as well as many thousands of corporations worldwide. Jeremy handles the co-ordination of Samba development efforts and acts as a corporate liason to companies using the Samba code commercially. He works for Google, Inc. who fund him to work full-time on improving Samba and solving the problems of Windows and Linux interoperability.

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