Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Friday, February 17, 2006

Consumers and ODF

Usually, consumers and technology do not mix well. Like oil and water.

But, once in a while, there are things that all of us need to pay attention to. They may sound techie, but really they are big issues of public interest.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of joining a roundtable, organized by the Consumer Project on Technology, with a roomful of people representing consumer groups in the U.S.

The topic of discussion: Why consumers should care about OpenDocument Format?

As we heard at the meeting, consumers care most about a few things: cost, convenience, access to public information. Consumers don't want to care until they have to care.

So what does this mean for ODF? To begin, as one person suggested, the discussion needs to focus first on the problems, not the solutions. And real problems do exist. Here are 3 examples:

1. How can we guarantee access to public information and records today and tomorrow?

Governments already have a problem with the "digital decay" of electronic public records. Freedom of information means nothing if future access to public records is not assured. Preservation of public information and digitial records is a pressing problem already.

2. How can we guarantee the every person truly owns and controls the documents they create?

Right now, you do not own your documents. Maybe you create a letter, a report, a spreadsheet or a presentation on your computer. When you save it, your file has a .doc or .xls or .ppt at the end of its name. BUT, you do not own .doc, .xls or .ppt. One company owns them. And therefore, one company controls access to the documents that YOU created with your own hands and your own information. What happens if that company raises its prices? Or changes the terms for accessing your documents? Or goes out of business? Or forces you to buy new software (that you don't need) just to use your documents again? You have a problem, and no choices.

3. Why do I have to keep buying new software and paying more money when I don't need it?

For most people, the answer is simple and sad: because you have no choice if you want to use the documents you created and be able to share them with other people. There is an unnatural monopoly over documents in the world. And when the company who owns all our documents (because it owns .doc, .xls and .ppt) says you must "upgrade", then you must upgrade if you want to use your documents ever again. That is NOT an "upgrade" -- that is blackmail. And you -- the consumer -- pay for it.

We need to talk about these things in plain english, without techie talk.

And we need to be talking to groups who should care about these problems -- like ...

* consumer groups
* libraries
* international relief organizations
* schools and universities
* election organizations
* local governments
* media organizations
* other groups that care about freedom of information

All of these groups rely upon large amounts of information and documents and access to public records. All of them should be worried about the problems mentioned above. All of them should start talking about how to solve these problems.

And ODF will likely be part of that discussion.