Peter Quinn of Massachusetts introduced a state policy last fall that states that all state employees must begin saving files in open formats, such as HTML, PDF and ODF (OpenDocument Format) by January of 2007. This, of course, brought him nothing but grief from lawmakers and the media. No one likes to have their tree shaken too much, and for most people that are what I would refer to as mildly technical computer users, this is a mighty big change.

The idea of open formats is nothing new. It's something that's regulated on the internet and with most transfer protocols. SMTP messages (Email) have to formatted a certain way. Microsoft can't send messages in a different format than Thunderbird, nor can Mutt, Pine or any other mail program. This is because these files are sent using a standard formatting that allows any email client to read them properly. This is the same with the web and the languages used there like HTML, PHP and Perl, not to mention the XML being passed more and more frequently between systems. The same hasn't been true for the desktop world.

So far in the land of the desktop it's been to each their own. Even when dealing with the same type of files, text editor documents for example, the file types and extensions are all different. Microsoft uses .doc, OpenOffice uses .sxw, Macintosh uses....well....something else, I'm sure. The point is that these things are all different due to the different programs used to read and edit the documents. This unfortunately means that if I want to read a file edited in Microsoft's text editor, Word, on my Ubuntu machine, I have to first convert it to a different filetype (actually, OO does it automagically, but it still occurs...), thereby loosing some of the data and formatting. Just because programs are getting better at automatically converting doesn't mean the inherent idea is flawed, or that the problem is gone.

If we could all agree on a common format that incorporated the bells and whistles that we wanted, then this wouldn't be the case. Imagine being able to read any type of file you wanted on any operating system using any program, so long as they all adhered to the standard that was agreed upon and put in place. Heck, I could use my Linux box to start editing a Text Doc, save it out of OpenOffice, copy it to my Laptop which runs windows, and just keep editing the same file later. Nothing would be converted, so nothing would be lost or changed, and the overhead wouldn't be there, either.

I know this probably sounds like a small fry type of argument, and admittedly the example doesn't do a good job of illustrating the scale of this issue, just the basic idea of it. Think of the millions of different files that are written, rendered or created every day that are done in some proprietary file format that only one OS' programs can understand. Now think of all the people out there that simply can't read/use/see the information contained in that file without at least some amount of conversion, whether it be easy and quick or frustrating and time consuming.

Now, imagine not having to ever do that again. Wouldn't that be nice? I sure think so.