The Ethics of File Formats

The basis for this post comes from this article titled “Digital Ethics and File Formats”. Thanks to Ted Carnanan for pointing it out on his blog.

After my post about the evilness of Microsoft and Apple, I figured I might need to fill out the ethics that my position is based on so I don’t come across as a total loon. However, these are not necessarily simple topics so I’m going to try to take the discussion in as bite sized chunks as possible. Individually these topics aren’t necessarily deal breakers. However, taken as a whole the gestault is a very powerful argument against the proprietary software model (at least from an ethical and Christian perspective). File formats, the first topic in the series, is probably one of the most important because many other topics build from the concepts that it provides.

A file is one of the main building blocks of modern computing. Files are associated with permanent storage mediums (thus we have file systems on our hard drives). While computing could be interesting with only temporary storage mechanisms (think of how a calculator works), it only really becomes interesting if you can store something for a long period of time. If you can store it for a long time, not only can you check or do the math on your taxes, for instance, but you can actually do your taxes, send them via electronic filing and store your taxes for archival purposes. You can also send the file electronically to your tax advisor to correct and approve as well. Of course, the assumption when you save a file is that you will be able to open it at a future time. When you send a file, your assumption is that the someone you are sending it to will be able to open it. These two purposes for files are the crux of what shapes the ethical argument involving file formats.

First, let’s take a look at opening a saved file in the future. When the software you use to save the file depends on proprietary or closed file formats, you are therefore dependent upon the software provider to continue to support those proprietary formats in the future. If that company doesn’t continue to support that file format, you are forced to either throw away the file as useless or upgrade your software so you can convert to a newer, supported format. Of course, these upgrades always cost money. Therefore, software companies now have a motivation that is directly opposite of the consumer: to change and upgrade file formats as quickly as possible to force the user to continue to upgrade and therefore pay the company more money for no added value. You as a consumer have no recourse.

Couldn’t you just keep the old version of the software? The short answer is no. At least for the time being, operating systems change rather regularly. For instance, try finding a computer with Windows 3.1 or NT on it. Not happening. So if you decide to get a new computer for any reason (maybe your old computer finally bit the dust or you just need more computing power), chances are you’ll need a new operating system as well. When you move to that new operating system, you are now required to upgrade all of your software just to open files you were already able to open on an old computer.

The other reason a software company uses closed, proprietary formats is what is called “vendor lock-in”. You might really like Microsoft Office this version. However, in the future, Office might get behind the curve in it’s development so that it doesn’t have as good of features as another program or is really buggy and doesn’t work well (imagine that from a Microsoft product, I know, it’s a stretch). However, since the file formats the company uses are proprietary, you basically have to keep using Microsoft Office whether you like it or not. The service that the software provides (to create and edit office documents in a usable and efficient manner) is beside the point because once you have bought in, there is very little incentive for the company to continue to innovate.

So, what happens with open formats? Well, the main thing is that they are…well, open. First, even if the software company stopped supporting the format or even went out of business, another person or company could support the file format at least for conversion. In fact, most open formats are created by collaboration from many different sources, so no one company or contributor has all of the power. Next, if the software company supporting the file format quit innovating, it would most likely be easy to switch to a competitor. That’s not saying there would always be a viable alternative supporting an open format, however, the likelihood of competitors supporting at least the import of open file formats in their market is very good because it’s almost always in their best interest (unless you are the gorilla like Microsoft – then cooperating never pays).

Now, all this might be interesting, but the ethical argument is a bit weak. First, while it might be unwise to buy and use software using closed formats, the business is just trying to protect their market and business. I think that’s a fine goal. However, forcing users to upgrade so they can continue to use older files is a bit of a bait and switch in my opinion and is therefore unethical. At a minimum, a company should be upfront with the minimum time they plan to support a specific file format so it educates and warns the user what they are buying into. Right now, it is just swept under the rug and hidden from view.

The next related ethical argument relates to the sharing and sending of files. When you collaborate on a project, not only you but everyone else you collaborate with must have software that can read the file format. Anyone that can’t pony up the same amount of money for the software that you did is left out. You may think that it’s worth your money to buy expensive software to work on your projects, but when you buy into products that are closed you are making that decision not only for yourself, but everyone else that you work with.

Let’s go through a real use case. This is where Microsoft Office is the best example. Everyone knows that everyone uses Microsoft Office. If you don’t know that, try NOT using Microsoft Office. Since I don’t use Microsoft, I’ll use myself as an example. Because I support open source software, I use OpenOffice with great success when I’m on my own. It has a great feature set comparable to Microsoft Office. It does everything I need it to do (plus a whole lot more). However, when I need to prepare a document or presentation to show at church or in a meeting, I almost always hit a problem with the conversion to Microsoft Office formats. This isn’t OpenOffice’s fault. OpenOffice is doing its best by supporting reverse engineered import/export into Microsoft formats. Of course, OpenOffice’s native formats are OpenDocument, a freely available and royalty free format. The easiest thing for Microsoft to do would be to support OpenDocument file formats. Then I could use OpenOffice and my church could use Microsoft Office and we’d both be happy. Of course, Microsoft won’t support open formats because it’s not in their interest to cooperate, and they want to use their power to force everyone to use Microsoft Office with their huge market share. At the moment, I can get around the problems with my uses by exporting to PDF which has become an open format (hint, hint, Microsoft). On the other hand, if I had to actually collaborate with anyone where we had to edit the same document, I’d be up a creek (or my friend would have to agree to use OpenOffice).

For me, this is where the ethics (or rather un-ethics) really hit home. When you (whether an individual, church or non-profit) buy into software that uses proprietary file formats, you are forcing every one you work with to use those same formats and pay the same money or risk breaking the law and the repercussions thereof. Period. Taken together, the arguments presented above show proprietary formats cause a form of slavery where a person or group of people are powerless to change their circumstance because those in power are making decisions for them. Take a minute to think about who the powerless are for your organization. The children and youth? The poor and needy? The single moms? Volunteers? Other organizations and non-profits you try to cooperate with?

To make it worse, most proprietary software companies offer “non-profit pricing” so they look like they are helping. Contrarily, just because you get non-profit pricing doesn’t mean that everyone you work with will get non-profit pricing or continue to get non-profit pricing in the future. In fact, that’s exactly why the software company is doing it; they make less money off of you, so they can make more money off of those you work with. It is not only a benign result, but it is purposeful manipulation by software companies. Why do you think schools are given big discounts by Apple, Microsoft and Adobe? “The first bag of crack is always free,” so to speak. The companies just want you to be hooked and once you are in, it’s very hard to get out, and using closed file formats is just one of the tools they use.

Considering the above, I personally find that I can only support software that supports completely open formats when I expect to collaborate with others. On the other hand, open source culture isn’t pervasive yet, so I can only do my best to continue to support companies that support open file formats. In reality, I can’t use open file formats 100% of the time.

Are there ethical proprietary alternatives without going open source? I believe the answer is yes. Google has generally supported not only open formats, but also a concept called data portability even when open formats aren’t being used. Data portability allows the user to leave and take their data with them at any time and do so in formats that can easily be imported to other similar systems. I can’t be sure, but I think this is part of Google’s policy to “not be evil.” Google is showing that you can make money and still be open (and more ethical) in how you do business. Are they still proprietary? Yes. Is proprietary with data portability as ethical and free as open? No. However, it is much more ethical than completely closed, proprietary and non-cooperative.

As usual, this post is already too long. This generally hit the secular, philosophical ethical argument. In a future post, I’ll try to unpack a little more of the biblical basis related to this.

Start considering software that uses open file formats. Stay tuned.

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