Open Content License (http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/announce.shtml) article from osOpinion (http://www.osopinion.com/Opinions/JohnDiedrichs/JohnDiedrichs1.html).


Last week, we were treated to the latest episode of the Microsoft/DOJ soap opera, when plaintiffs submitted their proposals for breaking up the company into several Baby Bills. Since then, pundits have been lining up to offer prognostications ranging from "No Effect" to "Total Linux Domination".

Amazingly, they all miss the mark.

It doesn't really matter whether Microsoft is one company or several. They already compete with both OS and Apps suppliers, and seek to dominate the emerging content-delivery and multimedia markets. Anyone who thinks this will change after a Microsoft breakup, please contact me about a certain bridge I have for sale in New York. ;-)

The key to Microsoft's domination is not in its predatory business practices (http://www.vcnet.com/bms/departments/dirtytricks.shtml) (which are manifold and astonishing), it's in the mindset of users. Ask yourself this: Why do people use Windows in the first place? There are three main reasons.

  1. It comes pre-installed on most PCs. This is starting to change now, very slowly, but most people still opt for Windows for the next two reasons...

  2. Availability of compatible tools and toys. From games to peripherals to applications, pretty-much everything runs on Windows, making it a "safer" bet than alternatives, especially for "computer-illiterate" users.

  3. Everyone else seems to use Windows. How can anyone hope to run a business in the 21st century, without the ability to open Microsoft's proprietary file formats, DOC and XLS??

It's this last point that offers the greatest leverage for reform, because it's something that EVERY computer user has control over. It's as easy as choosing "Save As" from the File menu -- even in most Microsoft products. It's a leverage point that can be implemented by executive fiat in most government and corporate offices. Look Ma, no legislation or litigation required!

It's also the one point that has been left behind in recent advances of the Open Source Software movement.

Numerous sites, such as (http://www.kmfms.com) KMFMS, offer reams of great info on how and why we should all boycott Microsoft's software, but there's very little attention to this obvious Achilles' Heel in Microsoft's market dominance: file formats.

For instance, how about creating a NORMAL.DOT template that sets MS-Word's default file format to RTF? I've been away from Word so long, I don't even know if this is possible, but wouldn't it be cool to have one of these to send to all those people who keep attaching DOC files to their emails?

One could even imagine a benign macro-virus that would propagate this simple change across the world -- asking the user for confirmation first, of course.

What free (speech) software advocates seem to miss is that the greatest obstacle to the adoption of GNU/Linux and other "alternatives" is compatibility of file formats -- not just the software itself.

Open Source tools, such as (http://www.wvware.com) MSWordView, have made great strides in closing the gap, but these will never achieve 100% compatibility because the file formats are closed. Reverse engineering can only go so far before Billzebub raises the bar again with another "upgrade." They will never succeed in solving the compatibility problem because they only treat the symptom, they don't cure the disease.

Most people don't even know that different file formats exist. Why should they, when even the "enlightened" seldom demand anything different?

But what if, say, the US Government suddenly stopped accepting documents saved in DOC format, and insisted on HTML or RTF instead? There would be an adjustment period, as millions of people finally discovered what that "Save As" option was for, but it wouldn't take long before similar edicts started coming down from corporate towers as well.

Once the movement catches on, small businesses will finally have a viable option in NOT using Microsoft products. Whereas now, not having any Microsoft in the office would be suicide for a small business, once it becomes common knowledge that information can be shared just as easily without Microsoft, there will be a migration away from expensive Windows licenses in favor of free alternatives.

This, in turn, will lead to better support for those alternatives from hardware and software manufacturers.

To this end, I propose the following:

  1. Lobby government agencies to stop using any proprietary/closed file formats in day-to-day business.

  2. Encourage businesses to do the same.

  3. Educate the people!

The one thing missing from most (http://i-want-a-website.com/about-microsoft/yamoo.html) anti-M$ websites an emphasis on file formats. People who visit these sites are given plenty of encouragement to replace their Microsoft software, but rarely are they taught how to use their existing M$ installations in an "open-source-friendly" way.

Installing an entirely new set of software is a daunting proposition for most folks. Choosing "Save As" from the File menu is butt-simple, by comparison.

So, as we continue our march toward total world domination, let's remove this annoying file-format pebble from our shoe and make the going a little easier for everyone.

Just a thought...


John Diedrichs is a writer and webmaster currently living in Taiwan. Though not really a "hacker," he wrote his first program on punch-cards in 1977, and has been interested in computers ever since. He has been using Linux since 1995.
Well, there you have it.

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