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 most importantly, some software suppliers do not publish details about how their format works. So if that software company goes out of business or stops supporting its ‘outdated’ formats, both you and the govt lose the ability to open and read older old documents!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.

Going to Barcamp in Berkshire 7 July 2012

Keeping up to date with developments in computing for your business

I’m looking forward to my first visit to Barcamp Berkshire, to mix a bit more with IT professionals and those interested in pushing the boundaries of computing.

It makes sense to keep up to date with technology. Even if you are not going to be the person doing the programming or installation, it is crazy to be ignorant about what can be done and what is available in terms of computing and other technology for a small business. And with sponsors like Paypal, O2, Bytemark and TechSmith this is a serious audience.

Choose an unfamiliar place to network

Although I may not fully keep up with the delegates, I will be able to appreciate view of IT professionals regarding:

  • what they think are exciting new ideas (rather than what the marketeers want you to think are amazing ideas)
  • what is considered to be more hype than long-term benefit (see above)
  • what they find frustrating (why ask for a system that is unpopular to support?)
  • what they enjoy working on (makes sense if your kind of requirements are satisfying to work on, because you will find suppliers who are keen to help you)
  • what hardware or software is considered to be under-appreciated (because you may get some bargains or get ahead of your competitors by using it to its real potential)

So in my view I will be getting inside information that may be more frank and open than I would get from a trade conference or supplier network. I also expect to make some new friends and contacts and soak up enthusiasm as opposed to sales pitch.

So stretch yourself and consider your networking in a different way.