I know that Brian Charlson is sincere about his desire to make sure that access is maintained to office documents for people with disabilities. He has a long track record of supporting accessible computer technology.
However, when he said, "The blindness community wants to make sure its not against ODF [OpenDocument format]. Were against implementation without a guarantee that we wont lose the [few] jobs we have" at the Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Data Formats for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I think its too easy to take this the wrong way.
Yes, many products already exist that can make existing Microsoft formats more usable. However, the key word is existing.
One way or the other, people with disabilities are going to have to buy or have their existing equipment upgraded to be able to use tomorrows office documents.
At least in the case of ODF, the standard already exists. Open XML doesnt exist yet as a Microsoft proposal. There is no Office 12 yet. There is no Ecma Open XML standard yet. There will be, but thats not today.
Charlson is concerned that the higher the price for the new technology, the greater the risk to jobs for the disabled population.
Hes right to be concerned.
The cost of proprietary software and standards vs. open-source software and open standards has been a constant concern of mine.
This isnt just a software issue though. If you look at history at all, its clear that anytime theres a closed system, anytime theres a monopoly, prices go up.
Whether its oil or office suites, if one entity, whether its OPEC or Microsoft, is calling the shots, then the prices are going to go up.
If you take a closer look at the situation, as Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, did recently, youre likely conclude that ODF actually makes more sense for PWD (People With Disabilities) than Microsofts promises.
This isnt just a concern for PWDs. Every one stands to benefit from more affordable, more open software.
Dr. Manon Ress, a director at the CPTech (Consumer Project on Technology), a Washington, DC-based non-profit created about 20 years ago by Ralph Nader, sees ODF as a major consumer issue.
In her blog, Ress wrote, "Whats at stake? If we compare what is going on with the monopoly on word processing to the openness, creativity and innovation in the field of authoring tools for the web, it becomes clear that we could see important changes if ODF becomes the mandated standard."
Why? Because, "ODF is important for insuring access, competition, cost savings and data sharing now and in the future," said Ress.
And as for Open XML, "for many IT industries, lets say other than Microsoft, the possible merger of the 2 standards Ecma and ODF could take years…and time is only on one side here. They see OASIS as the natural governing body for XML and open standards models. ODF is an existing standard, so why the delay? Who benefits from the delay and the lack of public awareness? Well, we know who."
Ill give you three guesses, and the first two dont count.
Librarians are also lining up behind ODF.
In a recent letter to the Massachusetts government, a coalition of American Association of Law Libraries, the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Medical Library Association and the Special Libraries Association, wrote, "documents in relatively long-term storage such as the hard drives of servers can be read only by programs that have backwards compatibility.
"Such backwards compatibility may be difficult to achieve in 100 years because the developer of the program used to create the document may have gone out of business and the proprietary specifications of the document format may have disappeared."
Yes, even Microsoft might disappear.
And, remember Microsoft, at best, will just be making its format open. The boys from Redmond have never said anything about the technology needed to render it correctly. Its like giving someone the plans for a lock, but keeping the key to yourself.
On the other hand, the librarians continued, "documents created in ODF will remain accessible in the future because any programmer will be able to find its open, nonproprietary specifications."
Finally, Microsoft could always support ODF. They were invited to join in when it was being created. Just yesterday, Patrick Gannon, the president and CEO of OASIS, once more opened the door for Microsoft to support ODF.
I doubt Microsoft will do the right thing. After all, its in their best financial interest to maintain a monopoly even if it isnt in anyone elses interests.
Ziff Davis Internet Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.