Rob Weir is a master rhetorician and a great storyteller, with a wonderful grasp of history. He is also one of the most visible voices in the anti-OpenXML brigade. For those of you that haven’t followed the story, Microsoft has put forward an XML format to compete with the Anyone-but-Microsoft Club’s Open Document Format (ODF).
Its not my goal to rehash the story here, but to ask a question about electronic documents and forensics. I don’t think the world needs one document format, and I am not sure Rob’s argument that paper is a single format that enabled innovation over hundreds of years holds together. Paper is found in, and underpins, a variety of formats, and that’s what actually makes it so valuable, rather than the other way around. Document storage, yes its an important issue. Document retrieval – even more so. But what I really take issue with is the idea that Microsoft’s OpenXML format could become uninspectable in future. I just don’t buy it. Today I saw that WordPress can render Microsoft Office documents using Thinkfree. I also learned that the Powerpoint equivalent Google just acquired allowed the authoring of Powerpoint slides without using Powerpoint. It begins to put me in mind of Mark Twain – the only things sure in life are death, taxes, and third parties (reverse) engineering around Microsoft Office formats.
As soon as we get into the forensics of document history, want to know who said what in 1922, or who had babies with whom, then tools are needed to analyse that information. Microfiches, libraries and so on. Its not the fact the records are on paper that makes them searchable; its the way the documents are organised and indexed. And you know Google is going to index all documents, regardless of format. Weir says he doesn’t see PDF as the answer. The answer to what, Rob? PDF is the reality of the official document world today, just as Microsoft Office is the reality of the hard-drive corporation. Is OpenXML really so heinous?
The pro-ODF argument almost begins to feel like the pitch for The Semantic Web: where top down standardisation will enable all kinds of cool stuff. I have a lot of sympathy for the Clay Shirkey pushback, which argues useful semantics actually emerges from tagging and how people use stuff.
One of my current hobby horses is that we the industry needs to move beyond good vs evil, manichaen black vs white, beyond the single answer to a problem. Our monoetheism does us no favours. A more polytheistic sense, of using the right tools for the job, and being in mastery, bringing a more distributed spirituality into our technology saturated lives. And document formats seems an obvious place for that kind of thinking. One true format? What do we need that for and what god are we worshipping? What are the problems we’re trying to solve?