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Interoperability Rules to achieve Document Freedom

Interoperability Rules to achieve Document Freedom

True document freedom can be achieved by using free software, open document standards, free fonts and standard document templates and styles. Users will have to learn a different process, in four easy steps, to improve the interoperability with other users, independently from the platform and the operating system.
A small effort, for a significant improvement, as the result will be true document freedom (and transparent interoperability).

Italo Vignoli

March 27, 2014

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  1. White Paper Interoperability Rules to achieve Document Freedom Interoperability and

    Document Freedom The large majority of personal computer users have never been taught to think in terms of interoperability, because interoperability would have been the tomb of proprietary desktop productivity suites. If users were free to choose the best tool for their needs - based mainly on the price/performance ratio - because document interoperability with other users was guaranteed by a true open standard format such as ODF, proprietary office suites would have never achieved the overwhelming market share they have reached. In a world of Open Standards, we would have had a different office suite marketplace, where competition would foster a true innovation process, based on useful features and not on a lock-in strategy based on document pseudo-standards, proprietary fonts and obfuscated operating system features. In fact, when document interoperability was based on the exchange of printed documents, there were a much more diverse set of products and fierce competition in the market in many geographies (for example, WordPerfect and Lotus 123 were leading the US market for word processors and spreadsheets). With the growth of the graphical desktop environment and the opportunity of exchanging digital documents, users of desktop productivity suites were "gently" nudged in one direction, with the result that in less than a decade, this extremely smart strategy gave the world a single, dominant, proprietary office suite and document format. Luckily, Sun's OpenOffice.org and then its independent successor LibreOffice - managed by The Document Foundation - have made a dent into that market share by providing an improved level of compatibility with the most popular document formats. On one side, this has allowed an increasing number of large organizations to migrate to free office suites. Amongst them, the French Government with 500,000 PCs, Comunitat Valenciana with 120,000 PCs, the Dutch Ministry of Defense with 45,000 PCs, and the Hospitals of Copenhagen with 25,000 PCs (to name just a few). On the other side, this has forced proprietary vendors to develop methods and technologies which make it increasingly difficult or just frustrating to work with free office suites. None of these technologies was intended to improve the user experience or software features.
  2. White Paper All these methods and technologies have been introduced

    over the course of time into proprietary office suites: a "ribbon" user interface, proprietary fonts, and a pseudo-standard document format. The ribbon user interface, which is perceived by many as more awkward and less productive than the traditional menu-based user interface, has the aim of making OpenOffice and LibreOffice look "different". In addition, it consumes a significant percentage of a personal computer's scarce vertical screen space, leaving a smaller space for editing than a vertical sidebar. Proprietary fonts - the new default for proprietary office suites - can make documents look significantly different when opened with a free office suite, as they have different sizes and metrics. Although there have been advances in this area thanks to Google and RedHat, users complain for the visual difference even if contents are the same. The pseudo-standard document format, which is approved by ISO but shares many characteristics with proprietary and obfuscated formats, is the icing on the cake of (non)interoperability. In fact, it has been released in four different versions over three proprietary office suite releases, and only in 2013 it has been provided according to the ISO standard specifications, which are different from every previous "transitional" version. Free office suites like LibreOffice, which support this pseudo-standard, have an hard time in trying to reproduce the different behaviours of such a moving target. Unfortunately, users do not realize that several interoperability problems are due to inconsistencies in the pseudo-standard document format, and not to the free office suite. In a world of Open Standards, a document freedom oriented strategy should allow users to control all the factors which make the document easily and transparently interoperable with other users. In fact, document interoperability should be a no brainer. Achieving Document Interoperability in Four Easy Steps In order to achieve document freedom, we must learn to produce interoperable documents. Unfortunately, this means that we have to review most of our editing habits, and start thinking about several details which make a difference: the office suite, the document format and the fonts. At the end, we will realize that if we start thinking about interoperability when we create a new document, we will eventually be able to exchange transparently any of such documents with any other user.
  3. White Paper Use LibreOffice Today, LibreOffice is the best available

    option for true document freedom, as it is the only free office suite independent from external influence. In fact, other office suites, although open source, are under the umbrella of either another open source project or a large corporation. LibreOffice is developed by one of the largest free software communities, under the umbrella of The Document Foundation. TDF is a German based, independent, not for profit entity - supported by governments, corporations and small software companies - which is overseeing and coordinating LibreOffice related activities. LibreOffice is released under a copyleft license: a key asset of the software. Copyleft licenses offer several advantages over other OSI approved licenses as they create an environment where corporate sponsored developers and volunteer developers can co-operate, without the risk of seeing their contributions used to create a proprietary software package. Thanks to the positive effects of the copyleft license, the LibreOffice hacker community has been growing steadily and - although based on a majority of pure volunteers - is comparable in size with the largest open source software projects. This safeguard the independence and the future of LibreOffice as a free office suite capable of competing with proprietary offerings. Use ODF ODF is the acronym of Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument. It is an XML-based file format for office documents, which was developed with the aim of providing a standard file format for desktop productivity. ODF was developed by a technical committee in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) industry consortium, based on Sun's specification for OpenOffice XML, the default file format used by the "parent" of LibreOffice. In 2006, at the end of a lengthy review process, ODF was approved as an ISO/IEC International Standard under the name ISO/IEC 26300:2006. ODF is recognized and supported as a document standard by several governments, companies, organizations and software products. For example: NATO with its 26 members uses ODF as a standard for documents. ODF is the native file format of LibreOffice, and of many free office suites and applications: AbiWord, Apache OpenOffice, Calligra, GNUmeric and NeoOffice. In addition, ODF is supported by proprietary office suites and applications. An open standard for office documents represents a dramatic improvement over
  4. White Paper legacy proprietary file formats or pseudo-standards. In fact,

    an open standard protects users against the effects of vendor lock-in, because the availability of the format specifications and the fact that the standard is managed by a truly independent organization such as OASIS foster document freedom. ODF documents - ODT text documents, ODS spreadsheets and ODP presentations - will always be free and accessible for everyone, because they are based on open specifications. This means that implementing ODF is a straightforward process, which provides predictable and consistent results independently from the software (because developers can rely on the same public specifications, and can leverage the availability of the source code). Trying to simplify the concept, writing an ODF document is easy - and therefore the result is predictable - because developers can access the same specifications, which are easy to understand, and can rely on the same tools. Therefore, it will always be possible to open an ODF document (even a very old one). Of course, in order to protect users freedom, LibreOffice reads and writes - often perfectly - every flavour of office suite documents, from the legacy proprietary to the current pseudo-standard. These office formats, though, should be used only to exchange documents with other users, and not to store information. Use Free Fonts LibreOffice uses free fonts, which can be installed on any personal computer and distributed without any limitation, in order to ensure the visual consistency of documents between different hardware platforms and operating systems. A word processing document or a presentation created with LibreOffice can be opened by any other personal computer using LibreOffice, independently from the platform or the operating system. The two documents will look identical, because the fonts will be the same (while the software will take care of all other details, such as margins, alignments and line spacings). On the contrary, proprietary office suites use their own fonts as defaults for new documents. These proprietary fonts are commonly replaced with similar but metrically different fonts when opened by LibreOffice or any other software. This can give a visually different result from the original, which will generate an issue about interoperability (even if document contents are preserved). Summarizing, proprietary fonts create create an artificial compatibility issue between otherwise identical documents, as the perception of a visual difference will overcome the fact that all content is preserved. Combined with the ODF standard document format, free fonts will preserve not
  5. White Paper only the contents but also the visual appearance,

    for the foreseeable future. There are several sources for free fonts, which offer a large selection able to fulfil every personal taste: Google Font, with over 630 font families; Open Font Library, with almost 400 font libraries; and Font Squirrel, with a very large selection. Summarizing, free fonts improve interoperability, and increase document fidelity. So, their deployment should become a habit for every personal computer user. Use Templates and Styles Templates and Styles are the last component of a perfectly interoperable document, because they help users in producing standard compliant XML tags to describe the different elements (like titles, subtitles, headings, paragraphs, headers and footers, page numbers, cell contents, etc.). A standard compliant XML tag will be extremely easy to reproduce by the receiving software, and this will result in a document which is identical to the original one. In fact, every element of the document has a tag such as <title> or <text>, which describes the function. In addition, there are other tags which describe the font and the size, and other attributes such as the character weight (regular, bold or italic) and the line alignment. If a user deletes a Template or a Style element, he will also delete the associated XML tag, which will be replaced by a generic tag. The lack of the right XML tag will represent a problem for the receiving software, which will try to interpret the generic tag instead of reproducing the right one. The result will be a document which might - or might not, according to the behaviour of the software - be different from the original. Conclusion True document freedom can be achieved by using free software, open document standards, free fonts and standard document templates and styles. Users will have to learn a different process, in four easy steps, to improve the interoperability with other users, independently from the platform and the operating system A small effort, for a significant improvement, as the result will be true document freedom (and transparent interoperability). This white paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.