[linux-elitists] McNealy in the WSJ

Bob Bernstein rs@bernstein.providence.ri.us
Fri Mar 3 22:44:56 PST 2006

The Wall Street Journal 		

Software Hardball
March 3, 2006; Page A10

In principle at least, there is no controversy. No one would argue
that content you create belongs to anyone but you. But, in fact, it

That's the dirty little secret behind much of the software people use
today. In business, in government, in schools and in homes all around
the world, we entrust our work to software applications: word
processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs and all the rest. And,
too often, that's where we lose control of our own words and thoughts
-- simply on account of the way we save our documents. Because we tend
to store information in formats that are owned and managed by a single
dominant company, in a few short years we may no longer be able to
access our files if the format is "upgraded." Or we may be required to
buy a new expensive version of the software just to access our own
thoughts. We do it without giving it a second thought. After all,
what's the alternative? A typewriter? An adding machine? A quill?

Think about it: If the Constitution were being drafted today, we would
likely lose free, or low cost, or even any kind of access to much of
the vital background in the Framers' correspondence to one another --
all because the file format will no longer be supported sometime in
the future. A letter is more or less permanent, and easily
transferable to different environments. An email is not.

Software appears to give us all the control we need over our documents
-- until it doesn't. The problem shows up when we decide to try
something different. A new way of doing things or a different software
application. Something better. Something cheaper, more reliable,
easier. But we're stuck with all these files in a format that's
exclusive to the company from which we bought the first software
application. In business, that's called a barrier to exit. Companies
that create barriers to exit figure we won't notice until it's too
late when the cost of switching is too high.

In the larger scheme of things, barriers to exit are bad for the
consumer. It means that in the long term we often end up paying more
than we should and getting less innovation than we would on a level
playing field. Companies should compete on the value their products
provide, not on their ability to lock customers into a proprietary
"standard." At this point, some people throw up their hands and say
that's just the way of the world. Nothing we can do about it.

Not so. There is now an open, international standard for common
personal productivity applications -- spreadsheet, presentation and
word-processing programs -- called the OpenDocument Format (ODF).
Approved by an independent standards body, ODF has the backing of a
broad community of supporters including consumer groups, academic
institutions, a collection of library associations including the
American Library Association, and many leading high-tech companies,
but no single company owns it or controls it. (A "standard" created
and controlled by a single company is not a true standard.) Any
company can incorporate the OpenDocument Format into its products,
free of charge, and tear down the barriers to exit.

Imagine being able to open any email attachment, read it and make
changes, even if you don't have the exact program it was created in.
That's the kind of interoperability the OpenDocument Format is
designed to foster.

If this standard is to become a reality, we must insist on it. In the
U.S., Massachusetts has been leading the way with a mandate that all
software purchased by the commonwealth comply with ODF. Globally, 13
nations are considering adopting it. The reason is simple. The data
belongs to the people, not to the software vendor that created the
file format.

If you don't think this is an issue, take a look at what happened
after Hurricane Katrina. People needing emergency services information
found that some government Web sites could only be accessed from a
single brand of Web browser. Important, publicly-funded information --
in some cases life-saving information -- was unavailable unless you
used that specific brand. That's like being told you can't use the
highway because you aren't driving a Ford truck. It seems to me that
this is one of those times when a government mandate makes sense -- so
that we can all use the road and choose what car we want to drive.

Am I guilty of oversimplification? Sure. But you get the idea. In an
increasingly connected world, having a single, open standard is the
only thing that makes sense. And if there are competing standards, as
sometimes happens (and appears to be happening here), they need to be
harmonized. The extra added benefit of open standards is that they
encourage competition, which spurs innovation and economic growth.
Nothing controversial about that, is there?

Mr. McNealy is chairman and chief executive officer of Sun
Microsystems, Inc.

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Bob Bernstein

A person of great honour in Ireland (who was pleased to
stoop so low as to look into my mind) used to tell me that
my mind was like a conjured spirit, that would do mischief
if I did not give it employment.
                                        Jonathan Swift

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