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Like pretty much all of you who read this site, I spend most of my working day messing with data and text files, and sending them around to various colleagues on a variety of platforms. While I do most of my work in OpenOffice.org and The GIMP, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues use Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe InDesign. So, despite my personal preference for Free and Open Source Software and open-standard documents, almost every document I create eventually ends up in some proprietary format. But proprietary formats, while convenient in their ubiquity, are inherently problematic, and there are some very compelling reasons to think twice about how you save your files. Here's why you should use open formats, and convince your colleagues (hint, hint to my colleagues) to do the same.
Proprietary formats, such as DOC and MP3, are dangerously common. While almost everyone on the planet uses these formats to save and share their data, the formats themselves are not in the public domain, but belong to corporations (in these cases, Microsoft and Thomson Consumer Electronics (et al.), respectively. Admittedly, this doesn't usually pose much of a problem in the short term. Songs you ripped to MP3 ten years ago still play just fine on your current player, and you can still open Word docs you created in the early '90s. The trouble comes when you – or the company that owns the format – decides it's time for a change.
Case in point: This year, Microsoft has decided to introduce a new format, Open XML (aka DOCX) which it has declared the new standard for Word files. Immediately, a schism broke open. While almost everyone on earth is still using the older DOC format, many who upgrade to Office 2007 unwittingly began using the new format (set as the default for Word 2007), which is unreadable to their colleagues without the use of a conversion utility. Time spent fiddling around converting file formats means lost productivity and lost revenues for businesses, governments, and end users who didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with the old format.
Alternatively, businesses, governments, and end users sometimes decide of their own accord that it's time for a change. Maybe they decide to quit spending their money on exorbitant licensing fees, or perhaps they simply find a different application more suitable to their needs. Whatever the case, the decision to abandon one product in favor of another shouldn't leave a company's assets (the terabytes of data that represent its most valued intellectual property) at the mercy of the vendor they've left behind. But all too often, what begins as a simple business decision ends up a data catastrophe, thanks in large part to the arbitrary intricacies of proprietary formats.
In my days as a net admin, I saw a company nearly screech to a halt in its attempt to flee an obsolete accounting system after the original vendor closed its doors. Tens of thousands of dollars in consulting and outsourcing services saved the company from a gruesome fate (and ensured that I got my next paycheck on time). If the company had been able to use an open format for its precious accounting files, rather than a closed propriety one, that transition would have been relatively simple and inexpensive. Most real-world scenarios are less dramatic than that. After all, anyone who opts to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org (or the other way 'round) is unlikely to find themselves up a creek, since both suites support a wide variety of current and legacy file formats. But in principle, the concern remains.