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Say no to Microsoft Office attachments

Over the summer, I was introduced to and immersed in the free software movement. Towards the end of the winter term, I had just begun to experiment with GNU/Linux; now I’m single booting and spreading it to many of my friends. I’ve always had an interest in open-source, but the philosophical and ethical arguments of the free software movement have captivated me and changed my perspective on software.

Returning to classes in September, I found some of my professors were distributing class materials in the proprietary Microsoft Office document formats (‘.doc’ and ‘.ppt’). Rather than feeling simple annoyance, as was the case before, I was actually offended. Clearly though, the intention of these professors was not to offend. They probably just don’t know any better. I really didn’t a few months ago.

Proprietary formats hurt free software users because free software developers cannot reliably (or often, legally, if the formats are patented) create and distribute software to read these types of files. And, as is the case with Microsoft’s proprietary formats, there often aren’t even non-free applications available for users of a free operating system (e.g. you couldn’t purchase Microsoft Office for GNU/Linux even if you wanted to); it is a barrier for people who want to leave a Microsoft operating system.

Inspired by the GNU Project’s article, “We Can Put an End to Word Attachments”, I decided to email my professors and explain why it would be better to distribute class materials in free file formats which are open standards.

Here is the first email I sent, regarding Word documents:

Greetings,

First of all, I’d like to thank you for making lecture notes available through the course website. However, I do have a concern about the file format in which they are being distributed.

The documents are being distributed in a secret proprietary file format when there are open standards which are available and widely used, such as the Portable Document Format (PDF), the ISO approved Open Document Format (ODF), HTML or plain text. Any of the formats mentioned can be easily implemented by software developers, and therefore there is a wide selection of software available to view these documents on all operating systems – no particular company’s operating system or applications are required. With the Microsoft Office format, this is clearly not the case; it puts pressure on students to purchase specific Microsoft software (and to continually purchase upgrades) instead of using any of the alternatives available (e.g. OpenOffice, StarOffice, Corel Word Perfect, Google Docs & Spreadsheets etc.).

In addition to readability concerns for students who choose other software suite’s besides Microsoft’s, Word documents are often used as vessels by computer viruses (http://www.viruslist.com/en/virusesdescribed?chapter=153313603&page=1).

Since I don’t have Microsoft Windows on my computer (for technical and – most of all – ethical reasons), I am unable to reliably read the class material. The best I can do is use software that guesses at the contents of the file, since the file format is secret.

In short, I’d appreciate it very much if the class material could be made available in a more accessible format (whether in place of or in addition to the .doc format), such as one of those mentioned above. This would guarantee that all students can easily read the course material, no matter what software they use. I’ve included some instructions below on how to save documents in other file formats using Word and would be happy to provide any further assistance or advice.

Thank you for your time,

Blaise Alleyne

I included some instructions from the GNU Project’s article, “We Can Put an End to Word Attachments”, on how to convert documents into other file formats at the bottom of the email.

The professor responded positively to my requests, agreeing to create PDFs from the Word documents. He noted that most of the class material would be posted in PowerPoint format though, noticing that my concerns would probably extend to that as well. However, he asked if PowerPoint files would be alright since there was “free software” (that is, proprietary software distributed at no cost) available to view ppt files. This was my reply:

Thank you for your response. I would appreciate the PDFs very much!

Unfortunately, my reasoning does also apply to PowerPoint files. There may be free (“gratuit”) software for viewing ppt files, but since they are in a proprietary format, only Microsoft can reliably produce these readers. As a result, there are no free (“libre”) software ppt readers which are guaranteed to work, nor are any of the proprietary readers available for users of free (“libre”) operating systems, such as myself.

(Briefly, free software (in the freedom sense) refers to software that is grounded in free and open standards, software in which the user’s freedoms are respected. Popular examples of free software include the Firefox web browser, the GNU/Linux operating system and OpenOffice productivity suite.)

Aside from the ethical advantages, there are several important technical advantages to distributing PowerPoint presentations as PDF files rather than as ppt files: (1) it dramatically reduces the file size; (2) you can put multiple slides on a single page (i.e.. two or four), making it easier for students to print; (3) the formatting of the original document is preserved (which is not guaranteed with ppt files, since different versions of Microsoft Office will handle files in slightly different ways – nevermind non-Microsoft software); (4) the documents can be read by anyone, either using Adobe’s free (“gratuit”) software or other software implementations (since the PDF is an open standard instead of a proprietary format, anyone can write software to view these files).

If you have software to create PDF files in Microsoft Word, that software can most likely be used to create PDF files in PowerPoint as well.

I’m sorry to be a bother, but I would really appreciate it if the class material could be distributed in a way that is guaranteed to be accessible by all and doesn’t put pressure on me or other students to use software from a specific vendor.

Thanks for your concern,

Blaise Alleyne

To my delight, my professor responded positively to my requests, thanking me for my suggestions. Now, all of the class material is on the course website in PDF format! I plan to take this approach from now on, whenever course material is distributed in proprietary formats.

One small step for free formats…

Also, in related news, I stumbled across an article on free software and free formats this morning: Spread Open Media: Free Formats Benefit Free Software

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