Have you ever had trouble importing one type of word processing document into your current word processor? Perhaps you’re using the same word processor, but are trying to import a document you created with an earlier version. Imagine for a moment what this will mean for a historian who is trying to research some correspondence fifty years from now. How about five hundred years from now? Are historians going to have to be computer hackers who have superhuman reverse engineering talents? Will there be mystical emulators that let you convert your modern computer into an insanely slow Pentium processor CPU running Windows 95 and Word 7? How will you even know what format a document is in?

There’s been some inspiring developments in Massachusetts who have decided to use the OpenDocument Format instead of Mircrosoft’s OpenXML. David Wheeler does a really nice job of summarizing what this means for open source development, and how Microsoft can choose to recover. I had no idea (but was not surprised to learn) that the royalty free license that Microsoft is using to distribute its “open” document format is incompatable with the popular GNU open source license. Ironically this seems to have been a calculated move by Microsoft to exclude open source developers from working with the open formats. Isn’t the whole point of an open document format to be open?

Thank goodness the folks in Massachusetts are on the ball, asking the right questions, and not simply following the money, power and status quo. At the same time they’re not exclusively endorsing the GPL; but have wisely decided to include as many possible development environments as possible. This sounds like the best way to making a truly archivable document format that will be good for “long haul institutions” like libraries and archives. Hopefully other public organizations will consider taking a similiar approach. Thanks Bruce for writing about this.