11 May 2008

A Word in Your Ear

A little while back I gave Peter Murray-Rust a hard time for daring to suggest that OOXML might be acceptable for archiving purposes.

Here's his response to that lambasting:

My point is that - at present - we have few alternatives. Authors use Word or LaTeX. We can try to change them - and Peter Sefton (and we) are trying to do this with the ICE system. But realistically we aren’t going to change them any time soon.

My point was that if the authors deposit Word we can do something with it which we cannot do anything with PDF. It may be horrible, but it’s less horrible than PDF. And it exists.

There are two issues here. The second concerns translators between OOXML and ODF. Although in theory that's a good solution, in practice, it's not, because the translators don't work very well. They are essentially a Microsoft fig-leaf so that it can claim using OOXML isn't a barrier to exporting it elsewhere. They probably won't ever work very well because of the proprietary nature of the OOXML format: there's just too much gunk in there ever to convert it cleanly to anything.

The larger question is what needs to be done to convince scientists and others to adopt ODF - or least in a format that can be converted to ODF. I don't have any easy answers. The best thing, obviously, would be for people to start using OpenOffice.org or similar: is that really too much to ask? After all, the thing's free, it's easy to use - what's not to like?

Perhaps we need some concerted campaign within universities to give out free copies of OOo/run short hands-on courses so that people can see this for themselves. Maybe the central problem is that the university world (outside computing, at least) is too addicted to its daily fixes of Windows and Office.


Sam Levine said...

"Maybe the central problem is that the university world (outside computing, at least) is too addicted to its daily fixes of Windows and Office."

I'm not sure addicted is the right way of putting it.

I think that most people are just resistant to any kind of change, even one that could benefit them. You basically have to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the modern world.

The ideal answer is to have educational institutions of all levels demand open source software whenever possible. Giving students black boxes is not a good way for them to learn (I'd also like a pony and the moon on a stick).

The most likely answer that will work is to have individual educators demand submissions in ODF format to begin with and provide media with OpenOffice.org for those who need it.

Glyn Moody said...

Well, yes, it was a slightly loaded term....

But equally it expresses the feeling I get that some people wouldn't even contemplate doing without it.

As you say, we need some strong souls to start demanding ODF at all levels. It will take time, but the argument in OOo's favour will only get stronger.

Justin Stanczak said...

I work for a university and I must say it's a hard road getting them to change. But I've had some success. First I have them all podcasting with Audacity, and they really like it. Now I'm working on a project to buy 30 Linux Eee PC's for a pilot class. Really if you get a group of faculty to accept it, and show them something they can really use it for they will spread it to the others. They really couldn't stop talking about how great Audacity is. Key is to make it "SUPER" simple to use. They just want to teach and nothing else. If it doesn't make teaching better for them, then scrap it and find a new direction. I think the reason they don't care is because they never pay for MS stuff, it's just there for them to use.

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for those very good points. I'm sure you're right that simplicity is key; in the past open source has sinned in that area, but it's definitely getting better - Audacity is one example, Firefox and Ubuntu others.

Good luck with the Asus Eee Pcs - sounds like a cool idea.

ChemSpiderman said...

I commented here about PDF files being "capable" if work is done to extend them.


Why are we fighting them...why not extend the capabilities? Why not "work on" the issues in PDF so that they aren't issues anymore? Why not work to extend PDFs for Life SCiences by adding appropriate capabilities? I'm all for asking Adobe directly and will hunt down the Life Science person if I can and try and negotiate a discussion about PDF. There are certain parties so focused on kill and build anew whereas I think there is a possibility to nurture and extend.

Glyn Moody said...

It would certainly be good if PDF could be opened up, but I have my doubts whether Adobe would do that or encourage others to do it. Although they've made noises about opening up, they are clearly very cautious about loosening their grip on sectors where they dominate.