There are better, safer, cheaper, more portable alternatives...
Copyright © 2005-2020 Godwin Stewart.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is available from the Free Software Foundation.
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Microsoft® Office™ documents (MS-Word .doc files, MS-Excel spreadsheets and MS-PowerPoint presentations, among other things) are an annoyance. They impede the Free circulation (in all meanings of 'Free') of information and they place unnecessary burdens on the recipients of the files.
Unfortunately for users and advocates of Free Software, these (arguably) inferior products have become synonymous with their intended function. For example, if you were to run a poll on the street corner, asking people who use a computer every day what the first piece of software is that comes to mind if you say "word processor", the overwhelming majority of people surveyed will reply "Microsoft Word". Let's give credit where credit is due. Simply calling a word processor package "Word" is so simple that it's not far short of a stroke of genius. How can anyone not think of "Word" when you say "word processor"? Although, on a historical note, the idea of calling a word processor "Word" was not Microsoft's. In the early '80s, the Swedish company Scandinavian PC Systems (SPCS) released a word processor called "SPCS Ord". "Ord" in Swedish means "Word".
Another area where credit should be given to Microsoft is marketing. Whether or not one agrees with the tactics employed by Microsoft to get their products in the consumers' full view, the Redmond giant has managed to make consumers believe that they need the products, and has managed to sell obscene numbers of licenses for that very reason rather than on grounds of the products' purely technical merits.
This, however, is where the praise ends.
The heart of the problem is Microsoft's secrecy around the way data is saved in the files produced by MS-Office applications. If Microsoft doesn't disclose any technical details about how, for example, Excel spreadsheet files are formatted, the only way you can be sure that you're viewing the file you were sent exactly as the sender intended is… to BUY a license for Excel yourself! Why should I have to go out and buy an expensive software package that I would only use for this single purpose when there are alternative methods of sending information? While there is talk of Microsoft finally using open standards such as XML in their next release of Office, codenamed "Office12", for the moment they're quite content to remain tight-lipped and listen to the soft ka-tching! of the cash register.
The answer, you might say, would be to use Microsoft Office and have done with it. This is not going to happen for several reasons. Firstly, in order to provide a more productive working environment where I spend more time actually getting work done than worrying about licenses, keeping the machines secure and making sure they don't get infected with the virus du jour or hijacked by the latest spyware, I do not run any Microsoft software here, let alone on a machine facing the Internet. This even applies to the operating systems as well − all the machines here run FreeBSD or GNU/Linux for which no version of Microsoft Office exists anyway.
Secondly, in view of the exorbitant cost of the initial purchase of Microsoft Office and the forced upgrades (which also have to be paid for) when a new version is released, compared to the zero cost of most Free Software, the balance is once again in favour of not going with Microsoft.
Finally, the systems I use are capable of producing documents that are not platform-dependent and are therefore usable by absolutely any computer system on the planet: plain text (obviously with the loss of font attributes), HTML, PDF, PostScript. Those who are willing to download and install OpenOffice.org (see http://www.openoffice.org) will also be able to use native OpenOffice.org documents if I send them. By insisting on using Microsoft Office, I would be limiting my field of action to other users of Microsoft Office.
Most of the time, documents sent in word processor form are simple texts, maybe with the odd image or two included with text wrapped around them. This is the kind of information that can easily be conveyed using a simple markup language such as HTML. There are countless applications for writing HTML, some of which can be found by looking no further than your browser (the Mozilla browser contains one such HTML editor, called Mozilla Composer).
Do you see a pattern emerging here? The sender ends up paying for a software package to send the data, and the recipient has to pay for another copy of the same software package in order to access the data reliably. Pay, pay, pay! ka-tching, ka-tching, ka-tching! This is rapidly becoming an expensive game, especially considering that neither of them actually needs the software because the same information could be conveyed using other methods which cost neither the sender nor the recipient a single penny. Can you say wasteful? You might also want to practise your mooing in order to maintain the illusion of being the perfect cash-cow.
"Okay. So, what about more complex documents such as spreadsheets with graphics and formulae or long texts with a table of contents, footnotes and the full works?" I hear you ask. You're quite right. Simple markup isn't the be all and end all in document formatting and sometimes something more elaborate is required. Free Software provides for these cases, too, but now that we've shown how proprietary software such as Microsoft® Office™ obstructs Free (as in cost) circulation of information, let's see how it also inhibits Free (as in freedom) circulation of information.
Quite simply, you no longer control access to your own files. The publisher of the software used to create them does. Case in point: try using a current version of Word to open an old document of yours created with Word 2. You can't. And there you were thinking you controlled access to your files… Another example: suppose Word 97 is sufficient for your everyday needs, but someone sends you a Word 2003 document. You obviously won't be able to open the Word 2003 document without upgrading your copy of Word, so who is it preventing you from reading the document now? What the #&^%@… your ability to exchange information with someone else now requires the consent (in the form of a license to use the upgraded software) of a third party! Bang goes the Free (as in freedom) circulation of information.
Consider this scenario, too, which is another example taken from the real-life experience of IT staff. You, or the company you work for, are perfectly happy with, say, Word 97 and have seen no need to upgrade. Then the older, outdated machines on one floor are replaced, and the new machines come with Word 2003 preinstalled. Users of the new machines now have to be taught how to save documents in the old Word format (with all the wasted time that incurs having to confirm umpteen "do you really want to do this?" dialogs), and the IT staff wastes countless hours answering calls from staff on other floors who can no longer open files on the fileserver when they're saved by users of the new machines who forget (or just don't bother, it wastes time, right?) to save their documents in Word 97 format. In order to stop wasting time this way, the company is forced to upgrade all the other machines to Word 2003. The trouble is, these machines aren't recent enough to run Word 2003 at a reasonable speed, so they need to be replaced, too!
The answer, you might say, is to uninstall Word 2003 from the new machines and re-install Word 97. Sounds good, but you can't. The Word 97 licenses you had (yes, past tense) were OEM licenses, which aren't transferrable to another machine. Dump the machine and you dump the software, too.
Back to the "what about more complex documents?" question. Granted, you'll need some kind of office package in order to create such files. However, one thing you should bear in mind when choosing such a package is how you're going to communicate your files to other people. In order to ensure maximum portability, you're going to need something that produces files that are viewable by just about anyone, and the most efficient way of achieving this is to use open standards.
Open standards, by their very nature and by definition, are, well, open for all to examine and implement − you are not locked into the products of any one particular vendor. One example of an open standard is Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). Regardless of the package you choose, if it is able to export your documents in PDF format, then those documents will be readable on almost every computer system on the planet. There are official versions of Adobe's Acrobat reader for Windows, MacOS and a handful of Unix variants including GNU/Linux and FreeBSD, and there are also third-party PDF viewers such as xpdf.
PDF is fine as long as your documents are only intended for viewing or printing. If you expect recipients of your documents to modify them in any way then you'll need to try another approach. Depending on the complexity of the layout of your document, HTML will be sufficient. HTML is the page description language used to build web pages, so any computer − indeed any device, even my cellphone understands HTML − with the necessary software to view web pages (web browser) will be able to view the document, and as mentioned above, there are many HTML editors available, which would allow the other person to make changes to the document and send it back to you afterwards. In fact, HTML is so simple to author that you don't really need an HTML editor. This very page you're reading now was authored using a straightforward text editor similar to the Notepad application that comes with MS-Windows.
If you need to communicate more complex information that the recipient has to be able to modify, then you'll need to use the native format of an office package. From here on you have two possibilities: you can export from your office package to MS-Office format and send the resulting exported file, or you can send a document in the native format of your office package. Let's start with the advantages and disadvantages of the first solution.
The obvious advantage of exporting your spreadsheet, for example, to MS-Excel format is the fact that Excel being so widespread, most people will be able to access your data without having to do anything more than just opening the file. There are, however, two drawbacks. The first is related to the fact that the format of Excel files is a closely guarded secret of Microsoft's and that the authors of your office package cannot know for sure that their conversion is accurate. They have to guess how to make an Excel file, and they don't always get it right. I have had first hand experience of such conversion problems upon sending a text document to a colleague in Belgium − the footnotes went missing somewhere during the process of exporting to MS-Word format, and given that this was a translation of record notes, the footnotes were important. Personally, I no longer consider the export to MS-Office format a viable option and always send either HTML or PDF. One record company I work with insists on me sending MS-Word files, claiming that their department that deals with making the leaflets included in the CDs cannot use anything else. I politely oblige by exporting the document to HTML and changing the filename extension from .html to .doc. The MS-Word at the other end opens it without complaining and the user (who should but apparently doesn't know how to open an HTML document in MS-Word) is blissfully unaware of his or her, erm, slight lack of knowledge in the field of his or her job.
The other drawback of exporting to MS-Office format is less critical and more political. Quite simply, you're not furthering the cause of Free Software. Instead, you're helping maintain Microsoft's undeserved (IMO) domination of desktop software, and you're not helping people break free from Microsoft's chains.
Sending documents in the native format of the office package you use also has advantages and drawbacks. Two advantages come to mind straight away. First of all the political, activist-friendly point: you're introducing someone else to the freedom and economic advantages of Free Software. The only disadvantage of sending someone a document in the native format of your office package is the obligation that you're imposing on the recipient to use the same package as you, but from here emerges the second advantage: just as would be the case if you were both using Microsoft Office, the recipient will be able to view the document exactly as you intended, make changes if need be and send it back in a format enabling you to view the original document and the changes made exactly as intended.
"Okay, so my correspondents will have to install the same package as me. Isn't that placing exactly the same burdens on them as they would place on me by sending me MS-Office documents?"
How much does MS-Office cost and are you legally entitled to make a copy of it for someone so they can install it? Hundreds of US$ and no, copying most certainly isn't allowed and makes the perpetrator subject to fines and/or a jail sentence (in France, up to Ą150,000 − that's roughly US$180,000 − and 3 years).
How much does, for example, OpenOffice.org cost and are you legally entitled to make a copy of it for someone so they can install it? Zero (although donations are welcome, but by no means mandatory) and yes, copying is even encouraged.
You were saying something about burdens?… It seems to me that by introducing someone to Free Software, you are lifting a burden from their shoulders rather than piling another one on.
"Fair enough, but the person I want to correspond with can't install software on the company computer, or can but will be sacked for installing software that hasn't received the corporate blessing."
That's a thornier problem. There are two categories of corporate environment here. Firstly there's the environment in which you can contact the decision makers and the IT staff and get someone to try your package. Most of the time nobody will see anything wrong with it and you'll be good to go. Problem solved. The other kind of corporate environment is the one which has received so much brain-washing from Microsoft that they're just too obtuse to change in any way. Personally, I don't want to work with obtuse, brain-washed outfits so I leave them be. I tell myself that for each one of those I meet there will be a hundred other potential clients with whom I can work. Not that I've ever come across one yet with whom I couldn't…
So, to conclude, we can say the following:
- If you use MS-Office and want to send out documents, then export them to an open standard. By not doing so and just sending out MS-Office documents, you are limiting your potential audience to those who are already users of the same version of MS-Office as you and obliging those who are not to purchase a costly license for it.
- Sometimes it isn't even technically (let alone financially) possible for people to use MS-Office.
- On the other hand, if you're not concerned that the document someone will be working on might not be the same as the document you sent (missing footnotes, for example), then by all means, you can rely on the sketchy knowledge about MS-Office formats that developers have managed to acquire through reverse engineering, and hope that the import/export filters of your correspondent's office package will work sufficiently.
- Similarly, if your correspondents exported to MS-Office format from their package, you might not be looking at what was actually in the document before it was exported and sent to you…
- Size matters, too. MS-Office documents are typically much larger than, for example, OpenOffice.org files and consequently take more time to send over the Internet, particularly if you use a dialup connection. Example from Michael K.: "I got a spreadsheet a couple of months ago, sent to me in e-mail. In Microsoft Excel format (don't ask me what version), it's 1184KB and took forever to open in OpenOffice.org. I re-saved it, not having made any changes to its content, as an OpenDocument spreadsheet and ended up with a file 276KB in size that opened in a snap."
If you were to start using Free Software (which is almost always free of charge as well as free as in freedom) today:
- You could download it and install it on your fleet of 200 desktop machines and 80 laptops entirely free of charge. That's right: 280 licenses and it won't cost you a penny. How much would 280 licenses for MS-Office cost you?
- When a new version is released you can download it and upgrade all 280 machines also free of charge. Once again, that's right: 280 upgrades free of charge. How much would 280 upgrades to MS-Office 2003 cost?
- By using something that supports open standards, you're increasing your potential audience to include any and all types of system for which there is software able to handle your files. In other words, almost any computer system under the sun.
- Not only are more people potentially able to do something with your files, but the software with which to do it is more often than not free of cost too.
- There is nothing to prevent you from sending a copy of the Free Software along with the files it produces − "Free" also means freely redistributable within certain limits that you will not encounter anyway as long as you are simply an end-user of the software rather than a developer.
Free Software holds all the trumps as far as I can see! That's probably why I use it…
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