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Why you should use Open Document Formats

The last Wednesday in March was, as every year, Document Freedom Day. We would like to use this opportunity to raise awareness about open document standards and to show how easy it is to stand up for digital self-determination and against monopolistic behaviour of companies. [1]

Fortunately, there are many office applications (“office suites”) available today. We can choose from a whole range of good and easy-to-use software. There are solutions that work well online and offline, on the PC in the office or on the go on the smartphone.

The discussion about the usability of such software usually boils down less to the functions of the various programmes themselves (most of them, whether proprietary or Open Source, offer all the functions you need, even for experienced users), but rather to their compatibility with common file formats.

A short crash course on document formats

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To provide some clarity at this point, we should first establish why it makes sense to separate the discussion between the office applications themselves and the document formats they store. This distinction is important in order to understand the platform economy behind proprietary office applications.

In addition to the content of a document itself, most office applications use complex file formats to store a variety of information. For example, what font and size is used, where graphics and effects are located, how mathematical formulas are structured in a spreadsheet, what transitions a presentation slide uses and much more.

In order for the programme to understand how the document file is structured, corresponding standards have been created. These standardisations are particularly useful when new programme versions are to open older or even foreign documents. If the programme does not know a standard, it cannot open the document or inconsistencies occur within the document.

Why Free Standards are important

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The best known proprietary document formats are doc and docx for text documents, xls and xlsx for spreadsheets or ppt and pptx for presentation slides. They were created by Microsoft especially for Microsoft Office and are partly even version-bound within the Microsoft Office office application. Particularly with regard to the older standards (doc, xls, ppt), there is the problem that Microsoft keeps the exact structure and storage rules of these formats secret. Developers of other software who want to open such formats must therefore find out for themselves how the document format works in detail. This makes perfect compatibility difficult to achieve (even within Microsoft Office). The newer formats from Microsoft (Office Open XML) are partially open, which makes support easier, at least in some places. Nevertheless, they remain proprietary and are still opaque in many parts, inconsistently implemented and compatibility is therefore very cumbersome for users and developers alike. [2, 3]

The Open Document Format (ODF) standard, on the other hand, is different and follows the philosophy of Free, Open Source Software. Similar to Free software, people all over the world can use the open standard, understand the detailed functionality, collaborate transparently on improvements to the formats and incorporate them into their own software developments. This enables smooth compatibility of documents in different office applications. ODF has been supported in almost all office applications for years and contains mostly the same functionalities as the established proprietary formats. [3, 4]

The use of ODF and other open file standards therefore leads to digital self-determination and freer markets, because with their help users can decide independently which office application they want to use. Moreover, they can share the documents they work on with other people, who in turn can use other software as well. When using proprietary formats, on the other hand, there is a so-called “lock-in effect” in which users are bound to the manufacturers of the respective software or it is artificially difficult to switch to other software. [3, 4]

The overwhelming majority of the market currently uses office applications from Microsoft or Google. Although neither Microsoft nor Google have a particular interest in supporting ODF in the sense of the lock-in effect, both office applications can open, edit and save the free standard. However, this is often made artificially difficult, actively discouraged by the programmes and other (prorpietary) formats are used by default. The market dominance of Microsoft and Google basically allows the companies to determine how and with whom content created in their software can be shared. [5]

What can we do?

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The most obvious and at the same time easiest change we can all implement is to use Open document formats such as ODF. This can be set as the default in many programmes and thus lowers the barrier to collaboration with others and long-term archiving of files. It also raises awareness about lock-in effects and compatibility issues as a kind of low-key activism.

The office platform Collabora Online included in the ViOffice Cloud uses the ODF standard by default. Of course, proprietary formats such as OOXML, used by Microsoft since 2007, can be opened, edited, saved and also created without any problems as well.

However, as with all issues affecting the digital market, sustainable changes that go against the economic interests of large IT companies are unlikely to be achieved entirely without government regulation and incentives. Legislators must ensure that monopolists implement full compatibility with open standards in their own software or disclose the specifications of their file formats so that others can fully use, understand, share and improve them.

Sources

  1. Digital Freedom Foundation (2022): About the Document Freedom Day. URL: https://www.documentfreedom.org/about
  2. Dapp, M. (2014): „Oh-oh-XML“ – Digitale Zeitbombe in deutschen Amtsstuben. Online at: https://netzpolitik.org/2014/ooxml-digitale-zeitbombe-in-deutschen-amtsstuben/
  3. Vignoli, I. (2022): Why ODF is a better Standard than OOXML. FOSDEM 2022 (Video). Online at: https://mirrors.dotsrc.org/fosdem/2022/D.libreoffice/lotech_odfbetterthanooxml.mp4
  4. Vignoli, I. (2019): Open Formats – ODF vs OOXML. Online at: https://www.libreoffice.org/assets/Conference/LATAM-Conf/Estandares.pdf
  5. enlyft (2022): Office Productivity products. URL: https://enlyft.com/tech/office-productivity
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Jan is co-founder of ViOffice. He is responsible for the technical implementation and maintenance of the software. His interests lie in particular in the areas of security, data protection and encryption.

In addition to his studies in economics, later in applied statistics and his subsequent doctorate, he has years of experience in software development, open source and server administration.