Saturday, November 17, 2007

India should adopt Free Standards

When Raghu could not open a document received via email from a friend abroad, he decided to call his colleague Harish who was the local troubleshooter for all kinds of problems related to computers. Harish took a look at the file and told Raghu that he would not be able to open it in Word because it was a Lotus WordPro document. Raghu was, naturally, taken aback. He could not understand what Harish was saying. So Harish explained to him that Word is only one of the several word processors being used on
computers, albeit the most popular one, and that WordPro was another. WordPerfect and OpenOffice Writer are others. All these, except the last, stored their documents in formats that are understood well only by the respective applications. So it often happens that a document created using one wordprocessor cannot be opened using another.

This is a problem that many people have been facing, though not very frequently. But this is a potentially serious problem in future, especially for the central and state governments. In most cases, documents are generated in proprietary formats such as that of Microsoft Word or Excel. Five years hence, if it becomes necessary to open one such document, two conditions will have to be satisfied: one that Microsoft still exists and their applications still allow you to open documents in these formats, and two, you have the required Microsoft application installed. Which means that you are bound to use Microsoft applications always–a phenomenon known as vendor lock-in.

However, in many other areas where we have been using technology products, we don’t face such problems. For instance, we still continue to use plugs, holders and other fittings installed twenty or more years back. We can still connect our modern gadgets to them without any problem. This is possible because of standardisation. There already existed standards when these fittings were made and we are following the same standards now. Unfortunately, there were no standards for documents generated using computers, till recently that is.

This may appear to be a minor problem especially in a country like India where few people use computers, but it is not. Imagine a huge database for e-governance built on a proprietary database. The company who provides the database could say one fine morning that they are moving to another format and they would not continue to provide support for the older version beyond a certain date. Similar things have actually happened. For instance, Microsoft told users of their older system, Windows NT, that they would not provide support beyond December 31, 2004, and that those who are using it should move to their newer system, namely, Windows 2000. This meant that those who were using Windows NT and were happy with it had to remove it and install the new system, which often meant replacing the computer itself, migrating all data (sometimes including applications) to the new system and retraining the staff–a very expensive exercise in many situations. But it could have been worse: suppose the company itself was to wind up!

So what is the solution? The solution is to have a standard format for all documents. This was, naturally, realised by users in the developed countries long before us, as a consequence of which we already have an ISO standard–the Open Document Format (ODF). This includes standards for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings. And this is a Free standard.

Now, what is a Free standard? A Free standard is a standard that is no one’s property. It belongs to the entire humanity and is not controlled by any person or organisation. It may appear strange that there can be standards that are controlled by someone. But this is possible. For instance, Microsoft has proposed a document standard known as OOXML (Office Open XML, where XML is a language that is becoming widely popular for formatting documents and stands for eXtended Markup Language). OOXML has been accepted as a standard by Ecma (originally, European Computer Manufacturer’s Association), a private standardisation body. It is now under consideration for acceptance as a standard by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) but has lost out at the first stage. OOXML is a proprietary format of Microsoft and someone who wants to implement it will require their licence. This is one of the reasons why organisations like the Free Software Foundation and industries like Google and IBM are fighting against the acceptance of OOXML as an ISO standard.

India has voted against OOXML at the preliminary stage. Along with several other countries, India also has given comments that point to aspects of OOXML that are not acceptable to the country. Dr. G. Nagarjuna, Professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, and Chairperson of the Free Software Foundation of India, who was a member of the committee that decided upon India’s stand in the matter, says that Microsoft had submitted a six thousand page document for evaluation. Since they had asked for (and were given) the fast track route for acceptance, the time available for people to respond was just about one month. This was probably done deliberately so that people would not find the time to study the document, necessarily a highly technical one, in detail and find out the problems. In spite of this, teams in India and several other countries burnt the midnight oil to go through the document carefully and come up with major objections, at least some of which Microsoft may find difficult to counter. They get another opportunity to defend themselves against the criticism. If they are able to respond satisfactorily to the criticism raised by the various parties, then OOXML could become an ISO standard.

But India and other countries have the option of deciding upon the standard they will follow. And this should be a Free standard like ODF. Regions like the state of Massachusetts have already adopted this standard. If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, there is bound to be a lot of pressure on the governments to adopt it. We should not make that mistake.