A Response to The Document Foundation’s Open Letter to the City of Freiburg and to the Circumstances of the Letter’s Publication

Last year, I posted the following comment on a blog post from The Document Foundation. I post it here again, as I realize that I had neatly summed up my position in this small piece. I then augment the initial comment with more recent insights and personal experience.

Comment on the “Open Letter to the City of Freiburg”

It saddens me to see that Microsoft Office still manages to shackle sensible businesses and public service providers like that. The truth is that OOXML is badly engineered and that ODF is an excellent format. People always live in fear of not being able to work with existing Office files and also believe (wrongly) that OpenOffice/LibreOffice cannot do everything that MS Office can. The truth is that OpenOffice and LibreOffice are being (re)built around the OpenDocument format, whereas the OOXML format is built around the peculiarities of MS Office. There is nothing rational or desirable about OOXML: it is defective by design and achieves none of its stated goals. ODF is modern, rational, consistent and flexible. It is also complete, contrarily to what Microsoft wants people to think. Users should not care about OOXML compatibility, they should care about achieving their goals with their documents. There is no proposed goal that cannot be achieved with ODF, whereas with OOXML you always have to jump through hoops.

You choose. Do you want:

  • A format that is complete, covers all use cases and yet has a fairly concise specification (a little over 800 pages in PDF), that is similar to HTML in its XML syntax and thus can be implemented, read and authored directly at the XML level by anyone who has the skill to work with HTML and other such similar formats; or

  • A format that is not even known with certainty to be complete or to cover all use cases due to its complexity, verbosity and shunning of existing standards, has a specification of many thousands of pages that leaves out important implementation details and is so complex and alien in its XML syntax that it is hard, even for a seasoned coder, to actually write any of it “manually”?

I know what I want. If the decision makers knew what was at stake, even if they chose MS Office, they would choose ODF (recent versions of MS Office are supposed to support ODF). Formats are important. They are actually, in a sense, more important than applications. Let me quote Rob Weir who, in a sensible article, laid it out very appropriately a couple of years ago:

The ODF open standard transcends implementations and code bases. It is bigger than any one product. ODF is what enables the user to have choice.

Indeed! And if one needs convincing, one need only consider the case of Web standards. At the onset of the web standards era, almost no one implemented the standards until a certain period of toil had passed. Then, eventually, standards began to be consistently implemented. And everyone involved saw that this was Good. During the dark ages, when the standards existed only in spec documents, they were an important beacon and implementing them was a motivation. Eventually, we ended up with much more than spec documents: there are now multiple implementations and, thus, there is now choice.

The conclusion is that ODF, when well used and well applied with e.g. OpenOffice or LibreOffice (among other emerging tools), is already much better than OOXML and MS Office. What we need to do is improve ODF implementations even more, so that the world eventually realizes how nice ODF is and wants nothing else. In particular, I think ODF should become a first-class citizen of the Web. One should be able to open an OpenDocument Text document in a browser as though it was a web page. The various existing web browsers, which are already awesome tools, should become honest-to-goodness OpenDocument consumers, as defined by the ODF specification. Moreover, we need more web applications that are OpenDocument producers as defined by the spec. For now, there is WebODF, but this project is still in its infancy and has yet to see widespread usage. Here is hoping that it gains more prominence in the near future.

Most importantly, the key activity that will help OpenDocument gain prominence is education. More than anything else, we need educators, decision makers and supporters to spread the news that documents must imperatively be authored and edited in an open and accessible format. The good news is that we have already come out of a dark age: documents need not be obfuscated anymore. Producing and consuming documents need not be a single company’s business anymore. It is not that hard to develop and deploy the technology to make and exchange high-quality office documents, no matter what a certain company wants you to believe.

Recent Considerations

Today, in 2013, as LibreOffice 4.0 and Microsoft Office 2013 are upon us and as the release of OpenOffice 4.0 is imminent, I am convinced even more deeply of ODF’s importance. Let me share a personal experience. At my University, in the Philosophy and Literature departments and, more generally, in the various fields of the Humanities, students have long been left to themselves concerning electronic document production. Until very recently, the vast majority of professors, assistants and administrators exchanged binary Office files among themselves and with students without ever giving so much as a hint of awareness of the existence of other formats. No explicit requirement was ever expressed for electronic documents, probably because most professors, in both Philosophy and Literature, expected student assignments to be submitted on paper anyway — electronic submission is a very recent reality in both fields. The consequence of this situation is that Office files were, as elsewhere, a de facto standard. Not giving any explicit requirements was, in many ways, worse than explicitly requiring MS Office files. There was no agreed best practice, no style sheet or template, only a very concise and seldom updated style guide (which primarily concerned the formatting of citations).

Students have trouble with Office files, especially Word files. I can tell, I’ve been there too. Students do have trouble with their text documents authored in Microsoft’s formats. They are at a loss and they do not control what they do: Word controls them. Ask any student or teacher what they think about Word’s handling of lists, different languages, titles, tables of content, hyphenation, justification, font mamagement, multicolumn “sections” (what sections? there is actually no such thing as a section in Word’s formats!) and so on and so forth…

Sometimes, the same teachers and Faculty who happily used WordPerfect or even AppleWorks back in the day are now clueless about the fact that there are other applications or formats besides Word’s. They used to have choice (to the extent that choice was possible in that pre-standards era), but now they have partial amnesia and they remember almost nothing of their old word processing habits and preferences: it’s Word, all the time, all the way, without even so much as a glance backwards. This is in fact very rational from their point of view: they do not think about it in explicit terms, but they view Word a de facto standard and have a vague belief that Word is being improved continuously to meet all their needs. The reasoning goes something like: “Everyone I know has been using this set of tools for so many years, I guess it must mean that this set of tools has demonstrated its excellence and versatility and is now beyond comparison with competing solutions. My IT department suggests this tool set, they offer support for it and they use it extensively themselves, so why would I go on a quest for a hypothetical different tool set which I have no need for?” This is called inertia.

Worst of all is the lack of style sheets and, more fundamentally, the total lack of knowledge about styles in general. People in the fields of Literature and Philosophy are bound to write documents in a technical manner. Many would refuse to call their documents “technical documents”, but they must admit that the process of producing these is a highly technical one. It is highly surprising, then, that departments have never thought about enforcing the use of styles. What departments do instead is say: “you must author your documents with such characteristics and follow those guidelines we provide, but we will not actually tell you how to properly implement such characteristics”. The result: no style sheet, no style; no style, no consistent structure; no consistent structure, substance suffers. Indeed, I assert that a lack of style harms the substance of the text. (I would need to demonstrate this separately and it is highly probable that I eventually will.)

Without a style sheet, work is endlessly and needlessly duplicated. Students, assistants and Faculty all suffer from a lack of style. They try to implement their department’s guidelines with insufficient knowledge of the tool they use and they repeatedly approximate without ever reaching full implementation of the guidelines.

The fact of the matter is that writers will not become document stylists if they have not first been exposed to an established style and the tool that was used to implement the style. Long have word processor users been acquainted merely with the icons presented by the application (be they part of a toolbar or a so-called ribbon) and a small subset of safe menu items. Where are the styles in a word processor? In Microsoft Word, they used to only be part of an anemic toolbox; many users never even knew that this toolbox existed. Of late, Word’s styles have also been presented in a ribbon and a gallery of sorts. The awareness about styles is not much better for it. As the official Word blog puts it, most people think that styles are “for people who want big blue text”. Not some people, but indeed most people: even many of those who do use styles believe that they are meant for people who want big blue text. What I mean by that is that many users have not been acquainted with the full purpose and raison d’être of styles: structure and semantics.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice possess a most excellent tool to deal with styles on a structural level: the Styles and Formatting window, also informally and quite appropriately know as the Stylist. This window has three great virtues:

  • it can be positioned and sized arbitrarily;
  • it has tabs for the style families;
  • most importantly, it can present the hierarchy and thus the inheritance model of the styles.

The Stylist is one of the great pillars of OpenOffice and LibreOffice. It gives access to one of the fundamental concepts of OpenDocument. What is more, it is set to become even more solid and usable in the future: it is being improved both conceptually and visually.

All of the style-related functionality in OpenOffice and LibreOffice is supported by and grounded in the underlying standard: the excellent and flexible OpenDocument format. You might already have guessed one of my conclusions: OpenOffice (which is more than ten years old and was first released around the same time as the decaying but still widely-used Office 2003) laid the groundwork for the excellent style model of OpenDocument. Microsoft Office, because of its inherent structure and shortcomings, would never have allowed such a development to emerge. OpenOffice made OpenDocument possible and, now, OpenDocument is ushering in the era of style. In the long term, this will improve the lives of authors and editors the world over and, hopefully, give better tools to my fellow philosophers and literary theorists. My deep wish is that they become fully aware of the format and realize the full extent of the potential that it holds regarding their work.

The Humanities deserve a more humane format. Fortunately, such a format is now within reach. The fruit is ripe! As I said above, education is what will make the greatest difference in the coming march of OpenDocument. The fight for open standards is far from over and, in this fight, all of those who are already aware of the better alternatives have a responsibility of education towards those who are not yet aware of the alternatives. The education that shall ensue is, in my opinion, a highly philosophical activity: one that deserves much energy and an earnest, continuous dialogue.

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