Arnaud's Blog

Opinions on open source, standards, and other things

Format vs Tool – where is the value?

At Goscon last month, Jason Matusow of Microsoft, stated that what matters most is not how information is stored but how you access it. According to Jason the real value is in the tool and this is what you should worry about; the format used to store the information is an implementation detail.

I understand why Microsoft would say that in light of the increasing demand for open standards like ODF. When you enjoy a quasi monopoly status you don’t necessarily want to open your formats and enable competition. But it remains that this argument appears to me as terribly retrograde and at odd with the era we’re in.

Contrary to Microsoft’s claim, I think the tool is no longer the center of interest, the information is. When I made that point at Goscon somebody in the audience applauded and I’m confident that this view is shared by many people but experience shows that what I think is common knowledge is often not. I’ve also learned that only through repetition things eventual sink in. So, I want to discuss this a bit further. Hopefully this will have some value even to those of you who are already convinced.

We’ve all used tools that function like black boxes. You use a specific tool to generate information, and you use that same tool to retrieve that information back. The information is literally imprisoned in some form of storage only known to the application you’ve been using.

When you think about it, if you create a book using Microsoft Word, even though the content of the book is yours, you are not free to access it the way you want. You can only access your own book through Microsoft Word.

But this is a model of the past. It was ok when all we did was to create documents that lived on one computer and stayed there, when sharing a document meant to print it and mail or fax it. But this is no longer acceptable in a world where information is primarily destined to be shared via some digital media, email or other.

The web has demonstrated the power of separating the way the data is represented from the application we use to access it. It is thanks to standards like HTML and CSS that we can all browse the web independently of what computer and browser we use. It is thanks to these standards that people can use whatever hardware and software they like to create and deliver web pages.

Similarly, having been using ODF for a while now, I’ve experienced first hand the pleasure of being able to try new tools as they come out, and switch tool depending on what I’m doing and my liking, all the while without having to convert my documents from one format to another. It may sound like I’m preaching but it is very real. Freedom is exhilarating!

There is no doubt in my mind that people who have had a taste of the freedom provided by this new model of separating the data format from the application will no longer accept the old model. They will no longer accept a model that ties their information to the application they happened to use to create it.

Those of us who are old enough to have known the old model will keep wanting more freedom, and the younger crowd will simply expect it. The future generations will demand it, and will reject anything that doesn’t respect what is fundamentally a right. The right to access YOUR information the way YOU want.


November 20, 2007 - Posted by | standards | , ,


  1. Actually I think Jason Matusow is right about that what matters now is how we access it. Problem is just that he twists an argument for ODF to support Microsoft lock in.

    People used to think “doc is good because everyone have paid or pirated version of Microsoft Office” Yet that does not hold anymore, the office treadmill and broken support of legacy doc-files has pretty much showed that it is not enough that you stick with microsoft’s default format.

    Only if the format is open and readable by any application will there be freedom to choose the best tool to access the information. Likewise only if the format is open will there be pressure to do innovation in the design of the tool to access the information. Microsoft pretty much stopped improving the tool access to the data when they had most of the market, and OOXML is desperate try to keep that status quo. Hopefully OOXML will fail and we move forward in brand new word where ODF forces the developers to do real innovation to keep the customers.

    Comment by Fiery Spirited | November 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. […] vs Tool (continued) One thing I should have added to my previous entry is that I believe the reason some people think the tool is more important than the format is […]

    Pingback by Format vs Tool (continued) « Arnaud’s Open blog | November 21, 2007 | Reply

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