The Importance of Document Open Standards

Today we're celebrating Document Freedom Day – a global event raising awareness of the importance of open standards for document interchange and storage. If you've never considered the role industry standards play in a business environment – and why incumbent products such as Microsoft Office and Google Drive are a questionable solution for many use cases – then read on.

Open standards matter.

It's not an exaggeration to state that open standards power the modern world. Think about connecting your electrical appliances to wall power sockets, replacing the tyres on your car, or hiring tradespeople to perform plumbing or building work (or doing it yourself). In all scenarios you never have to be concerned about the restricted availability of unique parts, an expensive dependence on a single supplier, or not being able to source a range of competitors for the best price and service. Technology designed in a vendor-neutral fashion and ratified by global standards bodies empowers consumers with the widest possible choice of suppliers, costs, and ready availability.

In countless ways – during every hour of every day of your business and personal life – open standards are at work.

Business document interchange is becoming entirely digital.

The proliferation of affordable, powerful IT systems and cloud computing has lead to a growing number of organisations dispensing with physical paper-based processes. Documents are commonly generated, modified, collaborated on, and delivered to colleagues and customers entirely online and in electronic (digital) format.

Proprietary technology keeps you locked-in to a single vendor, increasing cost and risk

Cloud computing and entirely digital processes represent new fronts for familiar proprietary software vendors such as Microsoft – as well as newcomers such as Google – to keep organisations locked-in to their products. The traditional revenue streams generated by forcing customers into costly and unnecessary desktop software upgrades every few years are being bolstered by "walled garden" cloud services, such as those tied to a Google account. The vendor's objective remains the same – to remove both customer choice and the ability to freely exchange and collaborate on documents in a seamless, product-neutral fashion. It is through closely-guarded, non-industry-standard technology that proprietary vendors are able to continue extracting disproportionate costs from their customers, keeping them tied to a single company.

For business owners, using non-standardised document formats engenders a long-term risk of being unable to access your own data and intellectual property. For example, if your company documents are stored in Google Drive's file format – which is secret and completely non-standard – you have no recourse to alternatives if Google chooses to remove features from the service, increase its subscription costs, or shut down the product altogether. Without the ability for other vendors to freely implement Google's technology via openly-documented industry standards, you are effectively depending on nothing more than Google's goodwill for indefinite support. For profit-motivated vendors, that support lasts only for as long as they can extract revenue from customers – after which point there is little to no incentive from their view to continue.

The risks associated with proprietary technology are tacitly exploited by vendors who deliberately remove support for older file format versions in their office suite products. Vendors can with impunity force customers to upgrade to newer product versions – often at great expense – simply so those customers can continue having access to their very own data. Customers often perceive the cost and effort of migrating to alternatives as being higher than simply sticking with the existing product, even in the face of considerable expense.

Businesses, education providers, libraries and public institutions using non-standard document formats for data storage are exposed to a very real risk of that data being inaccessible in years to come. This is far from being a distant concern. For example, within a comparatively short number of years we have witnessed Microsoft removing support entirely for files created with the Microsoft Office versions released in the 1990s.

The tide is turning.

Free and open source office productivity software has matured to the point where it has achieved equivalent or superior features, stability, and security than proprietary products such as Microsoft Office.

A rapidly-growing number of prominent organisations such as the UK government and many others are recognising the compelling benefits of open standards. They are making their landmark decisions from the standpoints of superior features, cost benefits through increased choice and competition – and the complete freedom from vendor lock-in empowered by the pervasive use of open document standards.

For organisations of every type and scale storing documents in digital format, using open standards (such as the OpenDocument Format found in LibreOffice) guarantees that files accessible today will still be accessible tomorrow – and decades into the future.

Using open standards also eliminates the colossal productivity drain caused by differing versions of Microsoft Office file formats, with all of the missing features, error messages, and broken functionality this all-too-common scenario entails.

Take action.

Investigating superior office software alternatives need not involve talking to a salesperson or signing up for a time-limited trial. LibreOffice – the word's leading standards-based business office software suite – can be downloaded and used for absolutely zero cost. Mission-critical scenarios where absolute stability is required are serviced by enterprised-hardened and professionally-supported versions of LibreOffice, such as LibreOffice from Collabora.

If your organisation is already using proprietary office software products to a significant degree – such as Microsoft Office or Google Drive – a professional open source services company can assist with a migration plan designed to help the transition to an entirely standards-based environment, with all of the myriad benefits this entails.