Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Small Victory for Open Standards and Digital Research

Hi everyone,

One of the fundamental challenges that researchers face these days is that many of our source or primary texts can disappear, either because the web site that hosted them has gone dark or taken the documents off-line, or the technologies that we use to read the documents become obsolete. As far as the latter is concerned, think for a minute how difficult it would be for you to read a WordStar document from the mid '80s that was only available on a 5 1/4” floppy.

Open standards are a way of mitigating that problem inasmuch as they strive to standardize the ways in which software stores information. The use of open standards is especially important for researchers, many of whom are already contending with compatibility issues. For instance, will the digital document that I'm reading and using as a source today still be readable by the software that's available in 10 or 100 years?

Wednesday marked a small victory in that regard, as the OpenDocument Format (ODF) was approved by the International Standards Organization. A competing standard, designed by Microsoft, is ostensibly still being considered, but since the ODF was approved, it's highly unlikely that a second standard (Microsoft's) would also be approved. (The whole point behind standards being that there's one of them.)

This does not mean, however, that Microsoft would be forced to follow the new ISO standard. One of the privileges of having near-monopoly status is that you're neither constrained to play fair nor nice.

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