Recently we have seen real momentum developing behind Open Source software, largely as a result of the realisation that in the pursuit of software quality, cooperation is much more effective than competition. The promotion of Open Formats is another movement underway that, whilst not as publicly recognised as Open Source, is perhaps of more importance to the wider community.
In the early days of computing, data portability was never really an issue. After all, you had your computer, you had the software to run on the computer, and that was about it! But with the increasing popularity of computer networks, inlcuding the biggest network of all: the Internet, we have found value in the ability to move data from one computer to another without it losing its value.
Network connectivity and the increased need to share data has worked to the advantage of proprietary format owners, specifically because data in a proprietary format has no value without the proprietary software used to access it. This has resulted in software spreading in a viral nature, following the data from computer to computer, creating a false economy based not on the quality of the software, but on the value of the data that is dependent on the software. Perhaps the most visible example of this is Microsoft’s Word which, whilst is globally recognised as poorly implemented software, remains the defacto standard for editing documents purely through the proprietary nature of it’s popular .doc data format. As a result of this popularity we find that we are not only forced to use inferior software, but due to constant changes in the .doc format, we must also upgrade this software whenever a new version is released in order to achieve seamless document sharing capabilities.
More importantly, we are now discovering that whilst we may be capable of archiving our data efficiently, there is no guarantee that we will be able to interpret that data in the future, as the software we use today will most likely be obsolete. For data archived in Open Formats we at least have the public specification available and, as a worst-case scenario, would be able to implement software that could interpret our archived data. For proprietary formats we have no such specification, rendering our data worthless.
Proprietary formats are specifically served to us like any other addiction: purely in the interests of those profiting from that addiction. Whilst these formats can be a difficult habit to break, it is essential to the health of your data that you find an alternative.