Document Freedom Day on March 30th is a celebration of the progress towards a permanent open standard for documents.
**The problem ** If you were in at the start of word-processing and spreadsheets, you will remember that you couldn’t exchange documents with people using a different program or, at best, the documents would come out differently. There were several reasons for this:
programmers had to find ways of describing the layout in the fewest possible instructions to enable the programs to use as little memory as possible
programmers were writing for different audiences: WordStar for secretaries, WordPerfect for executives, Supercalc for scientists and Lotus 1-2-3 for accountants
some companies deliberately changed the format with improved versions to encourage people to buy the new version.
Everything came to a head in 1997 when Microsoft introduced a new .doc format for Word. This included a large number of codes intended to make documents display correctly on different computers; so .doc files are typically four times larger than any other word-processing files.
The many codes, however, made Word 97 documents an ideal place in which to hide malicious code and, with the growth of the Internet, they became a popular way of spreading viruses, not least because, as Windows became the dominant home computer system, Word 97 and its successors were installed on so many Windows computers.
**The solution ** In 2000 Sun Microsystems began to develop a new open standard which in 2002 was adopted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards with the support of IBM and other computer companies as the basis for an open document standard, the Open Document Formats, approved by the International Standards Organization in 2006. Though Microsoft had initially been involved in the new standard, it decided to go its own way and developed the Office 2007 file formats. Both use tags rather than codes which makes them easy to compress, easy to recover if they become corrupt and more difficult to hide malicious code in.
Getting out of the problem The many different formats developed over the years mean that this is no common way for storing and retrieving documents which hampers communications between governments, government departments, other organisations and individuals. So governments, including our own, have increasingly been moving towards using open standards which do not depend on a particular vendor who might go out of business in future.
Any organisation which has been around since the 1990s will almost certainly have files in older formats which their current software may not support while the .doc and .xls formats were formally superseded in 2007 and, like earlier formats, are likely to be dropped in due course. So having an open standard which will be supported in perpetuity will make it much easier for organisations to manage documents and to communicate in future.
Anyone who wants more information on retrieving material held in older formats or on moving to the open document standards can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information and/or assistance.