Open document formats and why we need them

The whole world is moving to open document formats for the obvious reason that in order to read and write documents one shouldn’t need to waste money on Microsoft’s increasingly ungainly Office application when perfectly good free and open source alternatives exist (thinking particularly of the mighty LibreOffice). The UK Government has formally adopted an open standard for all of its documents.

Despite this many public bodies in the UK, including the NHS, councils, and many other organisations, continue to use Microsoft’s proprietary formats for documents. It may seem to the casual user that the arguments for proprietary versus open document formats are rather arcane. I would like to tell a story from my own life that illustrates why in actual fact every citizen and certainly every public body should be interested in open document formats.

My wife has just applied for a job. The application process involved filling out a Microsoft Word document. Naturally, she wanted to appear efficient and professional and so was concerned that if she used LibreOffice the tables within the document would be mangled. We don’t own a copy of Microsoft Word. I consider it to be a waste of money and besides object to funding Microsoft since they have done so much to oppose open standards.

As a consequence, I have spent three hours, which I could have spent working, or looking after my family, or just relaxing from doing either, using a huge pile of technology (a Citrix enabled Word program that I can access through my job, Google’s own document preview function in their email, a .pdf to .docx converter, and LibreOffice) to ensure that the document renders nicely.

This was further complicated by the fact that the document itself, in its original state, was badly formatted, and so I had to ensure that the bad formatting left in the document really was in the original or if we had introduced it using LibreOffice.

I’m a computer programmer fluent in R, moderately proficient in PHP/ MySQL, and manage two Linux servers. Not only that but I have extensive experience with Microsoft Office from my PhD. I actually made the document better.

Not everybody will want to or be able to pay for Microsoft Office. Not everybody will know somebody who can fiddle around with the huge pile of technology necessary to make the form look reasonable. But I think it’s pretty obvious that we don’t want to make job decisions based on an application form’s looking unprofessional because the applicant didn’t have Office and wasn’t married to a geek.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we need open document standards.