Do you read *.doc files? Please don’t.
Here’s a rather pathetic joke I’ve just conjured for your bemused pleasure: ‘Doc! Doc!’ “Who’s there?” “OpenOffice.org”. “OpenOffice who?” “Open Your Office with ODF before you find yourself stuck with something odious.”
Okay, that’s pathetic even by my standards, especially in the ironic context of an article dedicated to adopting open standards, but someone needs to urgently go and bang on several doors in India. I’m talking of doors in various government offices; at large public sector undertakings (PSUs); and NGOs working in the region. As luck would have it, I’ve found myself professionally getting rather involved with several projects through my clients. I’m supposed to contribute creative and strategic ideas in design, publishing, and new media, i.e., until I find myself getting hit with a doc file.
One contains the ‘RfP’, or the Request for Proposal. Another is the ‘ToR’ or the Terms of Reference. Then the usual agreement letter, an MoU, and a mandatory report. Then another, and then a few more. Heck! I’m deluged with doc files. All ordinary, simple, files filled with typed text. Nothing more. Authored in a rather expensive and proprietary word-processing software, usually bought as part of an even more expensive office-suite package. Multiply that by the number of computers in each department, of each organisation, and ditto for all the outside agencies to whom they e-mail those files.
Luckily enough, in the rain-drenched style of Matrix, I take on the whole blizzard of them with my extremely adept and extremely muft and mukt OpenOffice.org software. I even respond to a few with my own authored or reviewed doc files, all generated from OpenOffice.org. But, who’s going to free the minds and machines of these public-funded and grants-aided organisations? Try to grasp the delicacy of the situation here. Respected and valued organisations e-mail doc files to my clients inviting them to competitively bid for projects each worth lakhs or crores of rupees. It would be quite foolish of me to exhort my clients to reject the proprietary file-formats, and insist they only receive business offers in the file-formats of their liking. “Thanks for your query on that project worth millions, but no thanks! You forgot to send me an ODF file.”
Living in a tea-cup
I’ve been living and breathing among all of you, my friends and colleagues from the free and open source (FOSS) community. We’ve been kicking up storms over software and open standards for several years, but alas! These are just storms in a gnu/teacup. The outside world has yet to taste the first sip of freedom. In that world, a computer is just a glorified office machine and no further thought is applied to it.
Even talking of saving a few thousand rupees in a huge, complex frame-of-things, is sub-consciously understood as a digression from the agenda at hand; and a topic to be brought up perhaps on another day, with the right people, with the right credentials, in the right context. In fact, much as my clients are aware of the importance and value of FOSS, they find it prudent not to bring it up. I have lost count of how many meetings I’ve sat through, where I’ve been told how cash-strapped or tight the budgets are in this meltdown, while I quietly murmur to myself “Oh! Yeah? Well, then, how about getting rid of those proprietary software packages and adopting FOSS so you could pay me more, fund projects, say, three times as large, and become a financially more efficient organisation as well?”
The point here is not about offering an alternative, but making it mandatory to use FOSS and open standards, only because if it is not so in these organisations, they simply won’t switch. Sunil Abraham, mahiti.org, has already tried hard at various international projects. I spoke extensively with Venkatesh Hariharan from Red Hat, as well as with Prakash Advani from Canonical, but until everyone reading this, pitches in with suggestions on how to stop such incredible waste of public money, and how to make digital freedom a collective goal—all we’re doing is knock…knock…knocking on heaven’s door.