Sharing documents and the Open Document Format

What’s The Open Document Format about?

If you ever send or receive computerised documents by email, this is important for you.

Have you ever you received a document that you did not have the right program to read (Word, Office, Adobe, docx, pdf etc), or the contents were rearranged? And isn’t it frustrating to have to upgrade software you are used to just because others do?

The Open Document Format helps.

What is a document format?

When a computer saves something you have typed on the screen, it puts it in a thing called a file. The file is what you attach when you email it to someone, and the format is the way that your program writes the file.

Now, various computer programs write their files in different formats. It’s as if one saves your document in language A and one saves it in language B. The person the other end can only read your document as you wrote it if their program also reads that file format or ‘language’. If you have the same program, about the same age, then you will be ok.

Why don’t documents get saved in the same universal format?

There is a technical argument that some formats cannot cope with new, clever things that software companies invent for us to use. So formats need to change every few years.

There is a commercial fact that if you get enough people on the same software, everyone else has to buy it in order to share information. Equally, if you tweak your format every few years then everyone has to buy an upgrade in order to keep in step, so as a software supplier you sell a new program to write letters even when the old one still works fine.

What is the Open Document Standard?

Adopting the Open Document format is the UK government’s attempt to decide which of the file formats is comprehensive enough to cover most needs, and suggest that is used for all communication. My opinion of the reasons for this are:

  1. in order to make their documents available to everyone, the govt would need to issue documents in every format that was around, and that takes time and cost
  2. it costs UK businesses a huge amount of money each year upgrading when many do not need the functions provided by the ‘latest upgrades’
  3. being tied to one software supplier just to read documents is not a competitive market
  4. most importantly, some software suppliers do not publish details about how their format works. So if that software company goes out of business or stops supporting its ‘outdated’ formats, both you and the govt lose the ability to open and read older old documents!

Why should I use the Open Document Format?

  1. To eliminate the familiar problem of someone asking you to resend in a different format, download a new program or upgrade
  2. to give you the choice which word processor you use
  3. to give you the chance to invest in new software when you need to, not when incompatibility forces you to
  4. so that you will still be able to read your own documents in years to come

How can I use the Open Document Format?

Most software packages now allow you to change the ‘default’ format when you save a file. It will be in your user settings and you will also be asked when you install new software. You certainly do not have to spend any money to start using this standard. There may be a few minutes needed in training, but it is very simple. You only need to alter the default once.

Libreoffice and google docs have automatically used this standard for years. Libreoffice is used by millions and can be downloaded for free, so give it a try whatever you already use – it will look very familiar and does most things well in my view (I’ve used it for ten years now).

Further reading

More details from the UK government here.

Guardian comment here.

An article about how some software suppliers worried about how they might lose the ability to keep you tied in with them here.