Why is it important to have open standards

First of all, let me confess something: each time I find a headline which begins with why and has either open or standards in it, my first idea is to skip that article and read the next one. So I'll understand if you feel the same urge.

That said, I would like to explain my own tacky headline and why I do believe it really matters.

Normally, when discussing these topics, the conversation usually ends in a dead end where everybody gets bombarded with either very philosophical matters, which do not touch the inside of most of us, selfish beings, or usual and boring unintelligible cliches such as licensing, operating system A vs operating system B and all that malarkey, which force everybody else in the discussion to leave and let the speakers alone.

That's not good, because the issue is really important. But due to the inability to communicate of the defenders of the good cause (open standards), most of us are completely unaware of the seriousness of this.

What we are doing by allowing our personal stuff to be recorded and preserved in closed formats is like buying a leasehold instead of a freehold. You get the illusion that you are the owner but in fact you're just owning part, not the whole, of your files. Once the lease expires, you'd better start thinking about a way of renewing it or may have to move to a different place. And on the move, something may get lost and you can't complain because that wasn't covered by the lease contract. But if you manage to renew the lease, it may probably come with a new list of terms and conditions, which you might have to accept or risk losing your valuable belongings.

Now think of this in software terms. Each time you save your data in proprietary, non standard formats, you're exposing yourself to the future will of your software vendor. If they decide to stop supporting that software, you can begin waving bye bye to your data. Admittedly, you could keep using the same version of the software. But what do you do if you want to move to a different platform? Or if your current version crashes with a new version of your operating system?

Yes, there are emulators. There are visors and readers and converters. They might come from the software vendors (rarely) or might be a product of reverse engineering. And all of them are like a home-move: something may be lost in the process, with you getting to know when it's too late.

I'm scared!! What can I do??! AAAAAH!!

So I managed to scare you! Good! I think we all should try, for our own sake, to start looking for open alternatives when faced with the decision of choosing a file format.

For example, as a developer, a good idea is to try and use common formats instead of creating your own one when you need to store data. Not only it will help you in developing time (since there might be tools which manage that file format already there) but it will help people to use their data wherever they want, with the program they want, instead of forcing them to use only your program for manipulating their data.

As a user, try to use open formats, so that you do not force anybody into your closed living style when sharing data with them. For example, if you want to send somebody a song, do not send a WMA file which in addition may need some exotic plug-in for playing; just use OGG, which is free and doesn't force people to install something (a player) which forces them to accept an extraordinary lengthly EULA when the only thing they want is to listen to a song.

I have lots more of examples. Movie files which can't be played by your friend and he doesn't want to download player X and crack it so he can't see that funny clip you found. Your university texts written in some sort of old text processor which who knows which format used, lost in computer's limbo. Four years' e-mails. The whole accounts data for a company. Your drm'ized songs collection, religiously paid at an online music store...

At the end, using open formats will ultimately benefit the owners of the data - that means you! And if you're not worried about having to ask first in order to access your data, you're in risk of losing it.