Stupid Little Things


With Bill Gates’ recent affirmation of Microsoft’s “interoperability pledge” and the “MS Office formats are open…hey, wait, no they’re not” discussion in the news recently, the questions surrounding open file formats have been bouncing around my head.

These questions ended up bouncing off of a passage that I recently read in Paul Blustein’s The Chastening: Inside the Crisis That Rocked the Global Financial System and Humbled the IMF — which is well worth reading, by the way. Blustein managed to write a dramatic, exciting book on macroeconomics and global economic policymaking. Seriously.

The passage appears as Blustein is describing the many logistical difficulties that plagued the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank teams while working on the 1997 Indonesia bailout:

To make matters worse, the word-processing software the IMF used was WordPerfect, but the sofware in the World Bank laptops was Microsoft Word, so the two institutions’ computer systems couldn’t easily exchange files and documents — a perfect metaphor for their broader breakdown in communications.

As Blustein points out, this wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it was one more stupid little thing that made difficult and stressful work even more difficult and stressful.

In the current discussions surrounding open document formats, it’s important to remember that no one is suggesting that the tools used to create documents should be open sourced, just that the resulting documents be stored in a known, public, open format, to ensure that the documents can be used by everyone who needs them.

It’s easy, these days, to forget that this can be an issue: pretty much everybody has reverse-engineered everybody else’s document formats, and many documents are exchanged, transfored, and transformed back between formats without our noticing. All it takes is one stupid little thing, though — a change in one of those proprietary file formats, or an essential chart, document revision, or calculation that doesn’t translate well, and we’re right back to printing everything out and carrying it across the street.