Digging About for an Open Future

Submitted by kattekrab on Tue, 07/02/2006 - 08:58

Roland Gesthuizen & Donna Benjamin
7 February 2006
Infonet 2006 Issue 1 volume 16

Have you noticed a recent change of wind blowing across our general application desktop software? From clay tablets to papyrus, from the printing press to the typewriter and on to the PC, we have seen a steady progression of the means of recording, storing and transmitting human thought and history.

In the past decades, I’ve had to convert text documents between WordStar, Word Perfect and Microsoft Word. The format used by Microsoft Word (.doc) is arguably the most widespread de facto-standard whilst Word Perfect was supported on the widest variety of computer systems. Many users are familiar with the struggle to juggle multiple, incompatible document file formats.

Things are about to get very interesting and it is the end users who will benefit.

The Future of your Documents
The OpenDocument Format in XML is an important milestone for data but what does it mean for people working in the field of digital preservation? How can governments and business preserve their precious information for the future?
We are crying out for a means of sharing information, between people and across time, between machines and across networks and space. We don’t want to retype, reprocess and reformat in endless permutations. Do we want to be able to read our files in a distant future of five, fifty, or a thousand years or more?

But of course there are no guarantees. Scientists were unable to get data off tapes from the 1976 Viking landings on Mars because they had used an obscure format. Fortunately, they managed to track down some printouts and hired students to retype everything. The BBC discovered their 1986 Digital Domesday project is almost irretrievable, yet the original Domesday book from 1086 is still perfectly legible. Digital Preservation is a very big deal.

The National Archive of Australia was one of the first Government Agencies to actively pursue XML formats for the purposes of digital preservation. The NAA was one of the founding members of the OASIS Technical Committee which  standardised the open XML file format for office applications based on the OpenOffice.org file format. The National Archive has continued to develop Open Source Projects Xena, Quest and DPR.


VITTA is working gradually backwards to archive and publish past conference resources before they are lost in the depths of time. With a proud record spanning two decades of conferences, it would be a sad form of electronic vandalism to collectively discount the value of this past body of work, resigning it to obscurity and the electronic dustbin.

A dilemma is how to preserve and convert old copies of resources made with WordStar and WordPerfect. They can now be easily converted to both PDF and OpenDocument format files.

I am in awe of the pioneering work done by Margaret Lawson who cut the code for the first VITTA website and conference pages back in 1995, probably with a simple text editor. Especially when we remember that Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Web) had just left CERN to form the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and agree on some decent standards for HTML in October 1994!

It is generally agreed that XML is the future for document file formats. OpenDocument is expected to become an ISO standard. Microsoft also has an XML-based standard, but this is not an open format and licensing requirements will prevent some competitors from using it. Whilst OpenDocument was designed to support cross-platform interoperability, MS XML was designed to support one product that only runs on a single platform.

Unleashing OpenOffice 2.0
If you to explore the OpenDocument file format, have a look at http://www.openoffice.org. Users can even download a copy of  OpenOffice.org (version 2).

OpenOffice.org is a multi-platform, and multilingual office suite and an open-source software project. It is compatible with all other major office suites, is free to download, use, and distribute. I deployed it across the college with a silent command line install setup.exe /qn with minimal interruption. Isn’t it nice when you can dig out the parameters by just running setup.exe /?

I was pleasantly surprised that a close ICT friend, Andrew, had been using OpenOffice.org as his default office application for several months. He said that the change over was relatively easy. Andrew was also interested in the idea of having a copy of the Ubuntu Linux live CDROM handy as an emergency backup if his system dropped out again.  Ubuntu is distributed free,  includes a copy of OpenOffice and can be booted from the CDROM: http://www.ubuntu.com.

This has helped our Cambodian students who find they cannot easily type in their native language without clunky patches or office hacks. The Khmer OpenOffice development team has a vision of a country where Cambodians can learn and use computers in their own language. A country doesn’t have to change languages to use computers. Doubly so if we get everything working with the Open Document format.

Looking for something fun to try with your students?
Take a document file with some text and pictures. Save it as an OpenDocument .odt file. Rename the file extension to .zip and then simply open to observe the embedded collection of xml data file, stylesheets, folders containing images and other embedded objects.

Future of an Open Internet
We now face two very different futures and some fascinating issues to consider. They are pivotal to the future of an Open Internet that we are familiar with today.

“If you use the Open Internet, you can use the OpenDocument. Today. No upgrades. No strategy sessions about whether or not to pay Microsoft forever or get off the Redmond treadmill now. It’s an easy decision. Open Internet, Open Standards, Open XML. The world is just a download away from taking that first step into collaborative computing. A step that’s a leap far into future.”

Switching to using an OpenDocument format for all my school work isn’t now all that strange. The idea of Internet where code and documents can only be read and authored by a proprietary product is anathema to the collaborative model that I have come to know and love.

Having scratched our marks onto the back of our cave, we can move outside to explore a very different space that embraces an interactive open document standards and free software. Alternatively, we may find a future with a file format that locks users to a single vendor. It is an important issue for educators to consider in the classroom.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Roland Gesthuizen
Westall Secondary College
E: rge@westallsc.vic.edu.au

Donna Benjamin
Creative Contingencies
E: donna@cc.com.au