Jeremy Allison, the most high profile Novell employee that quit in protest at Microsoft-Novell deal, recently have a brush with document formats and in his case, it was not a good experience. Granted, one of his major error he did is precisely what a cocky programmer will do, i.e., “beautifying” the look and feel of the desktop by removing “unneeded” programs. He use his experience as a warning to all that supporting vendor neutral format is important. I leave you to read his blog to discover for yourself why you should take an interest in vendor neutrality.
What I want to comment on is the way Office 2007 Trial edition is designed and packaged. It surprised me (and Allison) that it cannot save to doc format, only docx format, and the fact that copy-and-paste is disabled. I believe it is the most unbelievable mistake that the design team did. Unbelievable, because it means users of Office 2007 Trial edition will have problems sharing their documents with others. I mean, how many people actually have the ability to open docx format, the new format of Office 2007. I know, converters are available for older version of Office. However, the converter is useless if you do not know about it or could not be bothered to download it.
Disabling cut-and-paste, and the fact that you can only save to the new docx format means most people will have their document trapped in Office 2007. Like it or not there is no other applications that is capable of saving to this new format except Office 2007. If there were a splash screen when you start the trial edition telling you about this, that will be fair game. However, trapping users into new document formats which deployment is not yet wide-spread is cruel. And it certainly will irate a lot of customers.
And I am also outraged. I always believe that whatever information I entered into the computer is mine. Hence your software should not be able to trap my data in it. Its fair if you say I can only extract text and lose all the pretty formatting, but the information, text+original images I uploaded into the document is MINE and you HAVE to return it to me. Its true that if I do not want to pay for your software, or I am using a trial version, I cannot expect to be able to save to the full repertoire of document formats available, but I do expect to be able to extract MY information out.
May be in a few years time we will have more software capable of reading docx format and a significant amount of people using older version of Office install the converter for docx. Until then, the documents remain trapped.
Of course, the absence of the ability to save to doc format raised a lot of interesting speculation. The one I am willing to buy is Microsoft is trying to use this to promote the use of docx format. Without any other evidence to the contrary, I am not willing to say that it is done specifically against ODF (since if you can save to doc, you can convert it to ODF when you open OpenOffice.org). I think it is likely to be more on the line that Microsoft is trying to discourage the use of its old document format and encourage people to upgrade.
This whole episode also highlight the importance of having docx format support in OpenOffice.org. If OpenOffice.org wants to display warning to users of docx saying that if you save to it, you might lose information that’s fair. It need not be perfect, just extract the text and images reasonably will do. It should be a bi-directional conversion to maintain the moral high ground however. The game here is to give decent support to users who need to do the jump away from MS Office. Once they made the jump, they discovered OpenOffice.org and know that they have a choice in word processing. That helps to accumulate users and good karma. Sooner or later, they will start asking whether the cost of paying for Office Applications are worth it. They will make the switch, or vendors will start to compete on features and price again. Either way, OpenOffice.org wins.
John Carroll argues that Allison should ask why OpenOffice.org choose not to support OOXML rather than asking why MS Office does not support ODF. My response will be OpenOffice.org does not have the responsibility to support OOXML, the same way that MS Office does not have the responsibility to support ODF. To argue this way is like saying don’t look at what I am doing, but look at what he is doing. Pointing fingers at others does not make the one’s problem disappear. I think I cover the point that you cannot blame users for being ignorant of the existence of converters/plugins that can do it. And I made my argument on why I do not believe that not being able to save in older MS Office format is acceptable at this point in time. MS Office trial edition is part of Microsoft strategy to promote OOXML and is one of the few legitimate and not underhand approach Microsoft is doing. But trapping users data inside Office Trial edition is not the way forward, Carroll as Microsoft has the other responsibilities to the users that it cannot ignore. Me not asking for MS Office Trial edition to save in ODF, but to save my information in a way that joe users can extract it.