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TRENDS
Free Public Domain Software

André Guyon
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 1, 2009, page 36)

The author of a recent magazine article about free software built on public source code argued that a decision to use this "Open Source software" instead of expensive office suites produced by major companies would result in huge savings and create local employment.1

If this is actually true, would language professionals benefit as well?

Yes, up to a point . . .

Governments could certainly save on the cost of purchasing office suites, but would then have to train people on how to use the new software and deal with having to modify documents created in previous formats.

Because Open Source software is available along with its source code (all the working parts are visible and can be modified by a software mechanic, a.k.a. a programmer), it is easy to hire a programmer to customize software to meet user needs without reinventing the wheel. In some cases, customized software must also be made public along with its new source code.

Consider, for example, a particularly interesting case: OpenOffice. The latest version of OpenOffice is, in theory, compatible with a large number of file formats, including those of Microsoft Office. Its user interface is very similar to older versions (1997 to 2003) of Microsoft Office.

Paradoxically, Microsoft has dramatically changed its interface, to the point where even people who considered themselves to be experts are a little lost. The transition to Microsoft Office 2007 will be considerably more difficult than the transition from Office 2000 to 2002 or 2003.

It’s worth noting that both products (MS Office and OpenOffice) store data in XML and that their formats are compliant either with OOXML or ODF public standards. We can assume that conversion will go smoothly, especially given that some European public administrations require software that is capable of data storage in ODF format.

This measure ensures the decompartmentalization of data storage. Language professionals and indeed all major organizations with large volumes of documents want to eliminate the shackles that are supplier-specific formats. Documents have become companies’ main assets in a world where commerce is based on information.

Any private or public organization that entrusts its documents to a sole supplier places itself at the mercy of its suppliers. More and more organizations consider this a dangerous practice.

This means that we can expect open file formats to become the norm. Each organization will then decide which commercial (or free) product its users prefer, based on the advantages and disadvantages of the software.

I would not be inclined to invest in an office software supplier whose products will not allow file reading and writing in ODF format (the open format required by several public organizations) in the near future.

Conversion of XML-based documents with clear specifications to another XML-based format has a greater likelihood of being perfect, bringing interoperability2 between software applications—not to be confused with integration—closer to reality.

ODF has become an ISO standard, and to show the extent to which the major players have taken that threat seriously, Microsoft hit back by creating its own public standard (OOXML) and developing a free Open Source converter. Conversion between ODF and OOXML is fairly reliable, unlike when each company had its own exclusive file formats (so-called binary files).

Though it was rejected by ISO at first, the standard produced by Microsoft also became an ISO standard [http://www.iso.org/iso/pressrelease.htm?refid=Ref1123] a year ago (April 2008).

In theory, ISO does not accept two standards that meet exactly the same need; the fact that it did shows that Microsoft still has a great deal of influence. The action caused an outcry at ISO; however, conversion between formats compliant with the two standards is almost perfect, as opposed to when software producers could change their formats from one week to the next.

In fact, conversion is so good that you can find more than one converter on Open Source domain SourceForge [http://odf-converter.sourceforge.net/]. There is even a project on the site for which most of the contributors are from . . . Microsoft.

Microsoft also recently published complete documentation on all its file formats, suggesting that we are witnessing a turnaround recognized even by the software giants. They claim that they were trying to be user friendly and were not at all worried about being excluded from certain markets.

Just like me: I’m not afraid of the dark. Not at all . . . but could someone please turn on the light? I’m just trying to be considerate, you know.

Notes

  • Back to the note1 Paradoxically, in many cases, free software can also be sold or incorporated into other products. In these cases, the only difference is that the source code is provided as well as the software, so a programmer can change it.
  • Back to the note2 When one software application can use the data produced by another software application with no special intervention by the user (particularly without the user having to reformat the data).