16 March 2009

Opening Minds about Closed Source

One of the most exciting experiences in blogging is when a post catches fire - metaphorically, of course. Often it happens when you least expect it, as is the case with my rant about Science Commons working with Microsoft, which was thrown off in a fit of pique, without any hope that anybody would pay much attention to it.

Fortunately, it *was* picked up by Bill Hooker, who somehow managed to agree and disagree with me in a long and thoughtful post. That formed a bridge for the idea into the scientific community, where Peter Murray-Rust begged to differ with its thesis.

Given all this healthy scepticism, I was delighted to find that Peter Sefton is not only on my side, but has strengthened my general point by fleshing it out with some details:

Looking at the example here and reading Pablo’s Blog I share Glyn Moody’s concern. They show a chunk of custom XML which gets embedded in a word document. This custom XML is an insidious trick in my opinion as it makes documents non-interoperable. As soon as you use custom XML via Word 2007 you are guaranteeing that information will be lost when you share documents with OpenOffice.org users and potentially users of earlier versions of Word.

He also makes some practical suggestions about how the open world can work with Microsoft:

In conclusion I offer this: I would consider getting our team working with Microsoft (actually I’m actively courting them as they are doing some good work in the eResearch space) but it would be on the basis that:

* The product (eg a document) of the code must be interoperable with open software. In our case this means Word must produce stuff that can be used in and round tripped with OpenOffice.org and with earlier versions, and Mac versions of Microsoft’s products. (This is not as simple as it could be when we have to deal with stuff like Sun refusing to implement import and preservation for data stored in Word fields as used by applications like EndNote.)

The NLM add-in is an odd one here, as on one level it does qualify in that it spits out XML, but the intent is to create Word-only authoring so that rules it out – not that we have been asked to work on that project other than to comment, I am merely using it as an example.

* The code must be open source and as portable as possible. Of course if it is interface code it will only work with Microsoft’s toll-access software but at least others can read the code and re-implement elsewhere. If it’s not interface code then it must be written in a portable language and/or framework.

Great stuff.

Update: Peter has written more on the subject.

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