We use computers to generate data. Sometimes it’s work-related data,
like reports and presentations for a job that earns us money that we
use to live on. Sometimes it’s school data, like term papers and
homework and reports, or music (if you’re a music student) or movies
(if you’re a film student), or designs (if you do graphic design or
architecture or engineering).
And quite often it’s personal data, like music we like to enjoy or
music we write, or movies we watch or movies we make, or family
photos, or vacation photos, or art photos, or creative writing, budget data, notes to remind us to do something, journal
entries, poems. You get the idea
In short, many of us have jumped on board the technology bandwagon and
entrust massive portions of our lives to computers.
And for the most part, for most of the time, that works out pretty
well. The laughable Y2k computer freak-out that was supposed to shut down
everyone’s computers didn’t happen, widespread computer viruses are
things we see on the news and not on our own desktops, usually at least, and we make back-ups of our data when it’s convenient to do so, at least we should
_The Way Data Works_
Something that many people probably don’t realize about computers is that the
file formats that we use to create our data require special code to be
understood. That’s how computer data works; computers store data
in ones and zeros, which is meaningless to us humans, so the
computer’s operating system has a little filter. This filter reads
ones and zeros in, and translates it into…well, whatever the file
format dictates: picture, video, poem, email to a friend, etc, so it can be displayed as it is meant to be seen on our screen.
Don’t believe me? It’s happening right now, because you’re reading
these words. And if you’re seeing graphics on this page or any other
web page, or on your own computer screen, then those filters are
humming right along.
Another thing that people don’t always realize is that the filters put in
place, so our data can be decoded, are often proprietary. That means:
that if you type a document into Microsoft Word, for example, and save
it as a .docx file, then somewhere someone is paying Microsoft a
license fee (it is usually included in the cost of your computer) to
decode that .docx file into words, the next time you open it up to
read what you wrote.
Same goes for Apple. If you save a file in iWork, or a photo with lots
of adjustments in iPhoto, or a song you’re composing in Garageband,
then to open those files up again, you need Apple’s secret
decoder ring to do it.
That’s not really a problem since obviously you’ll always have
Microsoft and Apple around to decode your data, right?
_Violation of Trust_
The real problem with proprietary data formats isn’t the fear that
computers or computer companies will just vanish, it’s about those
companies continuing to support their own formats. You see, if Apple
suddenly decides that an old format is no longer worth supporting,
then they have no obligation, implied or expressed, to decode any of
your old data. That means if you want to read a story you wrote a while ago in an old writing app that no longer exists, it just might not open. Same goes for picture files, they might not open anymore either.
If you think that sounds unlikely, just ask old users of Appleworks, which was discontinued in 2007 by Apple and is obviously no longer supported,
about how their data is holding up. Or ask users OS/2, which was discontinued by IBM at the end of 2006, or
any number of here-today, gone-tomorrow archive tools, backup
software, music-composers, movie-editors, and plenty more.
There’s rarely any real incentive for a company to continue to support
old formats. In fact there’s a real incentive for them to invent new
“better” and “exciting” new formats. The more they do this, the more
they encourage (read “force”) their customers to purchase new
hardware, new software, new apps.
So companies actively abandon old file formats and if we aren’t very
aware of the file formats we have our data in, we sometimes wake up
one morning and open an old file from three years ago and find that
we’ve accidentally updated ourselves right out of our own data :/
Considering the amount of information we are entrusting to these
companies, it’s not just frustrating that they’re abandoning the
formats that we’ve saved our data into, it’s a form of extortion and a
violation of our trust.
_No Worries, there is a Solution_
There are two right answers to this problem, and they both boil down
to the same solution: Free Software. The concept of Free Software is that
the user (that’s you and me) are, well, free to do whatever we
want. Including open our own data whenever we want, whether we’ve
updated and upgraded or not.
So the first solution is for companies with proprietary file formats
to open source those file formats. They don’t have to open source the
apps that they sell to create those files (although they
could, if they wanted to) but the file format at least should be
open. Some famous examples of this is Adobe’s PDF and the video format
MPEG4. Adobe opened up PDF so that anyone can read and write to the
PDF format (but they still sell lots of PDF-related tools so it hasn’t
affected their business model), and it’s become an ubiquitous file
format that’s quite a good format for digital-proofing and preserving
The MPEG4 format remains the most prominent video format around,
having become an open specification for video that is now used by the
MPEG itself for AVCHD h.264 (a common mpeg4 format in HD camcorders), Ogg
Theora (a free video format), webm (Google’s new HTML5 ogg-successor),
Divx, Xvid, the default formats for iTune media, and a lot
more. Again, lots of people are making lots of money off of this, but
it’s still open source and free for everyone to encode and decode.
In other words, with open formats you’re NEVER locked out of your data
because everyone and anyone can read and write to it.
There’s no excuse for any company to either end a software application
or to go out of business without first opening up the code for their
file formats. If they don’t, they’re violating the user’s trust, and the
user’s rights. And then again, why wait til you end-of-life the
software or go out of business? Open it up now, and give the users the
freedom to get to their own data no matter what computer they’re on.
User Freedom, it has a nice ring to it. Peace.