Document Freedom Day 2013

March 27, 2013

The Free Software Foundation Europe [FSFE] has designated today, March 27, as Document Freedom Day [DFD] for 2013, to mark the importance of open standards for the exchange of documents and other information via the Internet.

It is a day for celebrating and raising awareness of Open Standards and formats which takes place on the last Wednesday in March each year. On this day people who believe in fair access to communications technology teach, perform, and demonstrate.

This year’s DFD is being sponsored by Google and openSUSE.

One of the key aims of DFD is to promote the use and promulgation of open standards for documents and other information.  The DFD site gives the FSFE’s definition of an open standard; as the Wikipedia article on the subject suggests. there is a range of definitions from different organizations.  The FSFE’s definition is fairly strict: essentially, it requires that a standard be open to assessment, implementation, and use without restrictions, and that a standard be defined by an open process, not controlled by any single party.  That there is some considerable similarity between the concepts of open standards and open source software is, of course, not a coincidence.

As I have mentioned before, I am a fairly enthusiastic proponent of open source software, and I’m a fan of open standards, too.  As I’ve already mentioned, there are several different definitions of open standards, and I think it is useful to realize that “openness” can be a matter of degree.

The standards for HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the language used to create Web pages), and for the C programming language, would meet most definitions as open standards.  At the other extreme, Microsoft’s original definitions of documents for its Office product were not at all open: undocumented binary formats, entirely under the vendor’s control.  The Portable Document Format [PDF] for text documents was originally defined by Adobe Systems, but the format definition was published; beginning in 1994, with the release of Adobe’s Acrobat 2.0 software, the viewing software (Acrobat Reader, now Adobe Reader) was available free.  (PDF was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008, and published by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 32000-1:2008.)

While, in an ideal world, one might have wished, prior to 2008, to have the PDF specification fully open, the situation was far better than having an entirely closed spec: it was possible to evaluate the PDF definition, and developers other than Adobe were able to develop software to work with PDF files.  (I still use a small, fast program called xpdf to view PDF documents on my Linux PC.  It lacks a good deal of functionality, compared to Adobe’s Reader, which I also use regularly, but it is much faster for routine, “let’s have a look at this” usage.)

I think that the principle of open standards is worth supporting, for the very practical reasons that the FSFE has identified; they enable you to

  • Collaborate and communicate with others, regardless of which software they are using
  • Upgrade or replace your apps and still be able to open and edit your old files
  • Choose which phone / tablet / computer you want to use without worrying about compatibility

These are benefits worth having.

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