Open Formats vs MS Office

“We use MS Office throughout the company – we always have”

“Use Microsoft Word or you don’t work for us.”

“Please see my resume, attached in .docx format”

I’ll save you guessing – this post isn’t about the relative merits of OpenOffice (or variants) vs MS Office.  It’s an argument that you should be using open formats.  It’s not anti Microsoft or Microsoft Office, it’s not pro any particular word processor but I will suggest alternatives to the incumbent ruler of office suites and why you should be using them.

The three quotes at the top of this post are common enough, and they rile me – here’s why.


It’s the File Format, Stupid

Many companies seem happy paying hundreds of dollars per seat every couple of years to license a word processor that hasn’t provided anything essential to their business since the 1997 version.

That’s their prerogative.

But this product-buying cycle is perpetuated by Microsoft modifying the file format in each release, thus breaking compatibility with previous releases.  As soon as one person writes a document in the new version, everybody who shares that document needs the new version in order to open it.

So it’s not new software features that drive people to upgrade, it’s changes to the file format – that’s the structure of the file – the order of the bytes that make up your document.


Open Formats

Open Formats are designed to ensure a document will be available to be read on any platform in freely supported applications.  Although Microsoft claim to have an open format – they release the 7000 page specification for you to implement – the software you derive is not “free” by definition because of their patents you end up using.

If you’re looking for an open format office suite then look at Libre Office – a community driven project headed by the Document Foundation.  It’s naive to think you won’t need compatibility with MS Office and Libre Office can read and write Microsoft formats – maybe not with full compatibility but for most purposes its compatible.  It has its own native file formats which are “Open” in the sense they conform to the Open Document Format (ODF) and this is what I encourage you to work in, save in and distribute to people.


Cloud-based Office Suites

From a practical point of view I encourage people to use cloud-based services for their documents.  They give you flexibility to access and edit your documents form a range of devices and locations, and also offer great collaborative features unavailable with conventional desktop software.  If you use Google Docs or Zoho Office you can import and export your documents in ODF format (Libre Office compatible) and they pair together well, and with better compatibility than converting to MS Office formats.  The downside of cloud services is they currently have a limited set of fonts and layout options, but for 90% of document writing they are perfectly fine.


In Summary

I argue that distributing .docx files as attachments displays a certain arrogance.  It assumes the recipient has also purchased software costing hundreds of dollars and has it installed specifically on the device they are reading your email on.  Additional licenses would be required to open the contents of your email anywhere else, and in future years there is no guarantee it will be legal to even open the file again without purchasing some additional license.  Because Open Formats are community organised and written there will always be freedom in accessing what you may rightly consider your own files.

Insisting people deliver documents in .docx format is acceptable (if only for historical reasons) but requiring people to author in specific software such as MS Word is bizarre when all they should be caring about is the resulting document.

So when this happens to you:

"So, I have to buy Microsoft Word"

"Buy Microsoft or no work"

…take a stand and raise awareness of Open Format Documents.  There are viable software solutions that are freely distributed which have notable advantages over proprietary, closed systems that wrap your documents behind patents.  They offer freedom of use, and transparency in being able to mine and recover data in future years without additional restrictions or licensing issues.



Thanks to Loraine (@LoraineLawson) who inspired this article with her original tweet which I picked up quite by chance.



Office Open XML Wikipedia entry:

MS Office .docx extensions documentation:

Open Formats

Open Document Format (ODF)

Letter from Open Document Foundation to President Obama, 2009: