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1. Some explanations in the background
I won’t make this overly technical, but it is important to first state that Emacs does not come with one or several email clients: rather, it uses a set of different software components to process email, some of them being part of Emacs and some others, working in conjunction with Emacs (such as SendMail, OfflineImap, etc.) running outside as completely standalone programs. Now, it is also important to state that I have not used nor tried every email “client” on Emacs, and I don’t think I will. However, I’m a taker for information on some of these, given that I have specific requirements that may be satisfied with a few of these. I’m listing the requirements below:
– multiple email accounts and mailboxes (that works for pretty much any choice available in Emacs)
– IMAP and POP (I can live without POP, but it would still be nice to have the POP support)
– encryption support with GPG
– MH or MailDir mailboxes: please no standard Unix mailbox (aka mbox). It may sound weird, but I have large inboxes and stuffing everything in more or less one file is an utter catastrophy. On top of this, mbox support is of different quality given the email clients I have used in the past: Thunderbird, Mozilla Mail, Apple Mail, etc. Basically I had horror stories with mbox and I’m not keen on living them again. These days all my mail is in MH folders.
– Active development/maintenance
– Speed (If I bash Thunderbird or Evolution for resources hogging and slow performance, I will do exactly the same with any Emacs email tool).
– something to handle html mail or in general mail sent by people who have no clue about email, such as regular people. I know html mail sucks, however I do know a lot of people who send this kind of annoyances, and believe me, there are many of them out there.
– Not critical at this stage, but good contacts managements, calendar integration and even org-mode are a big plus. Fortunately this is the case with almost every email components in Emacs, except perhaps for contacts management.
– I know Mutt. I have heard of Mutt. Perhaps one day I will actually choose Mutt, but right now I’m not considering Mutt. If you want to tell me to use Mutt, then please go read buzzfeed.com and leave me alone.
2. My choice
mu4e. Well I do know that I didn’t go for the two or three most obvious choices (RMail, Gnus, VM) and I’d like to explain a bit why. Part of my choice is based on the requirements listed above of course, but in one case it is also based on complexity. You see, I believe to be accurate if I write that based on my requirements, Gnus does entirely satisfy all of them. I have started to investigate Gnus, but the documentation makes it seem… very complex, and I’m not far from thinking that it looks more complex than it really is. However, I went for an easier option as a first attempt. RMail would also satisfy almost all of them (using the MailUtils package available on any Unix-like system), however it seems that RMail only uses the mbox (and earlier Babyl) mailbox format, so that is a no-go for me, unfortunately. VM and other tools, nmh, mh-e do not seem to be developed or even maintained anymore. I might be wrong. Any pointer on this approeciated.
mu4e (mu for Emacs) was my choice over a rather similar solution called Wanderlust, but it seems Wanderlust runs into many bugs and has a slow development now. Plus, the author of mu and mu4e makes a good case of his own project vs. Wanderlust.
3. The experience
The installation and setup of mu4e is actually rather straightforward. The “mu” package (mu4e is part of mu) is readily available directly from ArchLinux, and you mostly need to install a few other programs such as offlineimap to have your imap acess configured. That’s a small python script to configure, and we are talking about entering details such as the server URL, your username and password. Nothing (too) fancy. After this you need to read a rather clear set of documentation directly available on the author’s website -there are very useful blogs on the topic as well- but it amounts to pretty much the same kind of settings anyone would need to add or configure when configuring a graphical email client. Once this is done, both offlineimap and mu -not mu4e- need to run for the first time. Offlineimap fetches your mail via imap and mu itself indexes your email you just downloaded. Note that these two are executed outside of Emacs, in your regular terminal, although you may of course run your terminal inside, er… Emacs, by using the Term or the EShell modes. After that, you need to open Emacs, and call in mu4e within emacs (it won’t run anywhere else).
At this stage, it is perhaps important to state that you need a working knowledge of how to use Emacs. By this I mean that you must have the ability to know how to switch from one mode to another, the main keyboard shortcuts, etc. Let me stress however that I am not a developer and that I have learned this rather comfortably in just a few months. Learning how to use Emacs (and this would apply to Vim as well and many other software) really amounts to read the tutorial(s) and then practice what the tutorial explains. Now when you have done that and feel confident to install and use mu4e, you will find what I’ve described above rather easy and straightforward. Otherwise you may perhaps think that I’m talking gibberish. The first thing mu4e shows is a default buffer with shortcuts to the inbox, bookmarks and other commands. Any of these is accessible through keyboard shortcuts. Refresh your mail for instance is done by typing a capital “U” (Shift + u) accessing your inbox first means to jump (j) to your inbox (i). You are then presented with a rather standard list of your email. Shortcuts (arrows) will select an email, press Enter and the content of the email are displayed by default in the lower region of your buffer, but you could have them displayed in a completely separate buffer. Sending email is also straightforward (Shift + c). You only need to write the email address next to the coloured line with a “To:” and the same goes for “Subject:” and “cc:”. A small separation line points to the area where you can compose your actual email.
My first reaction was that it was not that much of a radical departure from the traditional graphical clients. Of course there is nothing fancy, no “tabbed interface”, etc. but nothing that does not make any sense either. I have not spent enough time playing with the various options available. For instance I am not sure I can ever get the vertical three pane view that I have on every one of my email clients. I might, but I just need to check what needs to be configured. I didn’t choose a large inbox, so obviously things went fast, although it is not like they felt faster than Claws Mail for instance. There is of course a bit of disorientation due to the new interface. Questions such as “where are my menus?” take a whole new meaning here. Yet so far, I’m not ready to make the jump.
I need to sort out whether specific options are available (such as the vertical three pane view) but there are others. Also, I probably need to give Gnus a more serious look. But more to the point, I feel that switching to any kind of email management (for the lack of a better term) in Emacs only makes sense if I’m enthralled by the capabilities of tools I could be using; so far I like what I see but I hadn’t had an epiphany yet; and more importantly, using Emacs to handle mail really makes sense if I’m using Emacs all day long for pretty much everything aside perhaps browsing. This, however, is clearly not the case for me. For instance I use LibreOffice for most of my documents handling, even if I take notes with Emacs. I create graphical presentations, and must often handle complex Word documents. I hear Emacs handle tables very well, but so far I’m not dabbling in this area, and LibreOffice Calc serves more than my needs. I use Claws, browse the web with a combination of browsers (Firefox, Chromium, Gnome Web, Midoru and even ReKonq) and I do all of these things outside of Emacs. I estimate my workload to be happening somewhere around 20% on Emacs in one way or another. This is not enough for me to move… yet. However I am impressed, I’m pleased by what I’ve experienced, and I learned a lot more on Emacs than I thought. That was worth all the trip but as far as email goes, I’ll stick to my Claws…
After much delay, we had a message from TalkTalk to say that “superfast broadband” was now available at our house, and that we could sign up to their “Fibre Medium (up to 38Mb)” service for an initial fiver a month.
The words “up to” are not designed to fill people with confidence, so I thought I’d monitor some before and after speeds. I know there is some scepticism about on-line speed checkers, so I decided just to use TalkTalk’s tool. It is quite fiddly doing things ‘properly’ – plugging the laptop straight into the router, and disconnecting everything else (laptops, tablets, TV box, oh, and of course the WiFi printer…). Plus the fact that you get a different result every time you run the test…
In the end I decided to take three measurements one after the other, and plot them as one bar on a graph, to show the range of speeds measured at the time – the ‘before’ readings. Our upgrade was delivered on 4th August, with a new wall socket and a new router. TalkTalk state that it takes time for their routers to optimise themselves for a new line, and to leave it a week or two to settle down (?). Fair enough, I did this, and took some ‘after’ readings. The results are shown below.
The measurements show a clear improvement. On average, the speed is about three times faster, and the “up to 38Mbps” is a pretty fair description.
However, there is still a big variation between the best and worst in each set of three measurements. This may explain why it doesn’t really feel much different for average web browsing – the line speed may not be the limiting factor. I don’t do mega downloads, so I don’t notice any difference there.
However, one thing that is now usable is BBC iPlayer via our YouView box (also from TalkTalk). We sat and watched the first episode of Dr.Who from the previous day yesterday evening, and it played from start to finish faultlessly. This is something that was impossible pre-upgrade – the service was simply unusable at any but the quietest time of the day (and I don’t want to watch old episodes of Dr.Who on a weekday afternoon).
Today I’d like to discuss a topic that is constantly recurring about LibreOffice: the overhaul of its interface. I am aware the matter has some real trolling potential, but at least if one wants to troll it is important to get some things straight first.
Is LibreOffice’s interface outdated? It depends who you ask the question. The problem is that some part of the answer is really a matter of taste; another part of it is really about the kind of interface we could have; and yet another side of the matter is the perception of what its interface should be like. Let’s address the three issues separately.
A matter of taste
Do you like the Tango icons shipped by default with LibreOffice? Do you prefer the Sifr iconset? Really, it’s up to you. Did you know you could customize pretty much each and every toolbar of the interface? You can not only add new toolbars, you can of course remove them, but you can also change their actual position and even customize them. You can use Firefox themes as the background of LibreOffice. What’s not to like then? The interface is outdated? Now we’re getting somewhere…
What kind of interface should we have?
That is actually a broad issue. The whole debate started at the times of the old OpenOffice.org project. Microsoft Office had just been shipped with its ribbon interface, and there were really two kinds of feedback. One was that we should switch right away to a ribbon-like interface. The other one was just as loud, and was urging us to stick to our menu based interface. Statistical analysis showed a clear correlation between a massive surge in downloads of OpenOffice.org and the ribbon interface of Microsoft Office. This debate has not changed since that day. We receive dozens of mail, tweets, comments telling us to get a ribbon interface, a dozen more urging us to the contrary. It is obvious that many people hate change, but it is also important to realize that with respect to the ribbon interface, there is no new and old interface. Ribbon intefaces are one of the three possible types of interfaces for a computer: text (command line, for instance), menu (LibreOffice, Photoshop, Firefox, etc.) and ribbon (Microsoft Office). The text interface obviously is the oldest, but the ribbon and menu interfaces are actually quite old. Tiled windows managers such as the old CDE or Fluxbox belong to the category of meny interfaces for instance. Ribbons were not overly popular before Microsoft Office and force a different way of thinking based on a stream of icons and options, rather than a highly logicial flow of menu and hierarchies. No one is “more or right or more wrong” than the other.
To me the real question is what we should have as actual improvements to our present inteface. It’s not so much about how to make it look more up to date -major efforts have been accomplished since the 4.1- but how to make certain options more readily accessible to the user. A good example of people who went to think hard about the interface is the Calligra team. I’m not suggesting this is where LibreOffice should go, but it is clear they thought about a new way to think about the various menus and toolbars. Last but not least, it is also important to realize that LibreOffice on tablets or phones will have a new interface, or at least will go through a major simplification of the interface. Things are not idle in this field, but there are constraints. More on that below.
What should the user interface of LibreOffice look like?
Among the recent feedback on LibreOffice, someone on Google + wrote that we should copy the Microsoft Office’s Ribbon interface “just like KingSoft Office”, because that way people would migrate seamlessly to LibreOffice. This kind of comment is not isolated, and I think it’s important to set the record straight on this:
- there are several copyright issues if you just copy Microsoft Office. Perhaps even patents. KingSoft is based in China. It is a different matter as they do not seem to be affected by these legal constraints.
- we are not interested in being a clone. When you are a clone, people always prefer the original and you have invested tremendous resources in being just that, a clone. I don’t think many LibreOffice developers are interested in a clone either. We are interested in developing the best office suite in Free Software, interested in growing our community, interested in helping others and promoting digital freedomes and bridge the digital divide. It is fine if you want to use a clone of Microsoft Office, but we’re just not that kind of project.
That being said, would a ribbon interface for LibreOffice speed its deployment? It is very hard to say. Because people who hate ribbon interfaces would go away, while the rest of them would have to learn a new ribbon interface, a new way to do even the simplest things, while the rest of them would use alternatives or Google Drive, with its much simpler interface. On top of this, it is very important to always remember that we cannot change the LibreOffice user interface in one shot. The code is too complex, it has undetected dependencies pretty much everywhere, and we are thus constrained into incremental changes. Of course in a few years, the interface will look very different from what it does today. I could actually write the same about how LibreOffice looks like today: open it on Windows 7 or 8 and compare it with OpenOffice.org, any version of 2007-2008. You WILL notice major differences.
The conclusion of this (too long post) will thus be this one: when it comes to user interfaces, there are many truths and even more prophets; the reality however is more complex, and often times frustrating. If you want to help with the LibreOffice interface, join our Design team, and you will be able to work on improvements while incrementally changing it to something different and hopefully better. More importantly, you will have learned from a great community and this community will have learned from you!
Welcome to this month’s edition of Eyes and Ears. This month we will focus pretty much on deep house tracks and I hope this edition will provide a wide range of deep house, from the latest Jon Hopkins to a few Balearic mixes. The last mix however is historic. José Padilla comes back mixing to the Café del Mar after 15 years. I have added the recording of this live event at the end of the post.
Jon Hopkins, to start with, recently released his latest album “Immunity” and it is somewhat of a radical departure from its previous work (Contact, Light through the Veins, etc.). This single, “Abandon Window” is a very nice example of what I’m talking about, and a really fine and effective track to get you in the mood… The mood for what exactly? I don’t know but it’s not meant to entice you to lounge your day away.
On a more melodic note -literally- I’ve recently discovered this track from Lane8, an artist I had heard about and listened from time to time. Lucy Stone sings in this beautifully energetic track “Nothing you can say”. Apologies for the mixer’s introduction at the beginning.
This one is actually a Trance track, more than deep house, but I thought it was going along pretty well with the others. Eric Prydz’ latest single, “Liberate” is stunning, which proves that he can make some great music without the need of filming girls doing the gym.
The latest mix from Bruno (aka Bruno from Ibiza, aka Bruno Leprêtre, his civil name) will make you travel to the sunny beached and the gorgeous sunsets of the Mediterranean sea. His entire mix collection on SoundCloud is worth listening, as you don’t get to listen to his tracks so much these days.
Last but not least, José Padilla’s mix at the Café del Mar this last May must have been a special moment to attend! But for the rest of us who were not there, including me, here’s the recorded mix:
The dressing and arming of a warrior is a common set scene in epic poetry, e.g., Iliad 2:
He put on a soft khiton,
fine and newly made, and put around himself a great cloak.
Under his shining feet he fastened fine sandals
and around his shoulders he placed a silver-studded sword.
He took up the ancestral scepter which is always unwilting.
The structure and contents of such scenes have been well-studied by scholars, e.g., Armstrong 1958, and even parodied, as in Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock:
Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
The Fair each moment rises in her Charms,
Repairs her Smiles, awakens ev’ry Grace,
And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face;
Sees by Degrees a purer Blush arise,
And keener Lightnings quicken in her Eyes.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling Care;
These set the Head, and those divide the Hair,
Some fold the Sleeve, while others plait the Gown;
And Betty‘s prais’d for Labours not her own.
However, the dressing of the 21st Century casual American male appears to lack rigorous analysis, a deficiency I hope to remedy, at list in the area of furthering understanding of the dependency constraints of this activity.
It is well-known that underpants must be donned before pants. Despite the intriguing experimentation by Rowan Atkinson no practical alternative has been found. Similarly, socks must be put on before shoes, pants before shoes, and both pants and shirt before the belt can be buckled.
Illustrating the topological ordering as direct graph, we have the following:
Within these constraints many dress orderings are possible, some of the more common ones beings:
- underwear, socks, pants, shirt, shoes, belt
- underwear, pants, shirt, belt, sock, shoes
- underwear, shirt, pants, socks, belt, shoes
Orderings like the above are familiar to most people. However, there are many other possibilities, some perhaps worthy of further exploration:
- socks, shirt, underwear, pants, shoes, belt
- shirt, socks, underwear, pants, belt, shoes
It will also be appreciated by those practiced in the art that the two socks need not be put on together. This permits extravagant ordering like:
- left sock, shirt, underwear, pants, belt, right sock, shoes
- right sock, underwear, pants, left sock, shoes, shirt, belt
There is also nothing that prevents a Towers of Hanoi approach for those with time to kill, where -X indicates that X is to be removed:
- pants, shoes, shirt, -shoes, socks, -pants, underwear, pants, shoes, belt
Hopefully the above gives ideas for further exploration and experimentation. Although we do not dress and arm ourselves to fight the Trojans, our morning ritual can be equally an epic experience!
LibreOffice 4.3 has been released this week and it has already been noticed quite a lot, judging by the number of articles in the press worldwide. The announcement may be found here, and a thorough, technical description has been written by Michael Meeks on his blog (detailed release notes are here).
I would like to discuss a bit what I think stands out in this new release; as such this is a personal collection of items and topics and not an authoritative list you could find in the release notes.
1. Native look and feel on Mac OS X
Had this been a multi-platform announcement, it would probably have been the most touted feature of the release. The reality is that this only affects OS X users and the technical details are a bit more specific: toolbars background are now rendered natively on Mac OS X, essentially leading to a native-look and feel for LibreOffice on Apple computers. This is significant to me and to OS X users and gives a much welcome UI refresh to LibreOffice. I know we receive many demands – or rather complaints to “change our user interface” but most of these requests come from people who probably have no clue what such a change entails in terms of efforts and resources. LibreOffice’s user interface, as such is not outdated because it is based on menus and not ribbons. These two interfaces metaphores are two concepts that date back to roughly the same time (the eighties) and none of them is supposedly better than the other. LibreOffice however needs a background refresh at least and to look native or more native on each platform. Such changes happen in an incremental way, and the 4.3 illustrates this. If you have a Mac, just download and install Libreoffice 4.3 and see by yourself what I mean. To me it is something major because it is by definition highly visible to anyone.
2. Printable comments
I don’t think I would have hailed it on my top list just a few years ago but working more and more in a “collaborative fashion within a reasonably close physical distance” (read: in an office) I keep on noticing people printing documents all day long, then taking a pen, writing stuff, highlighting lines with markers… Of course you can add comments to documents with LibreOffice and go print-free. But people do print documents. All the time, all day long. I am planning a post dedicated to the never-ending legacy print as some aspects of this issue fascinates me. Anyway, it is now possible to print the comments you added in the margins with Libreoffice, independently of the file format (ODF or OOXML). This is a much awaited feature (other improvements for comments are also shipped with the 4.3), and it will let people continue to print endless drafts of their documents for many, many years to come. Apparently, we answered a deep and essential human need here – it did require a lot of work from the developers as well.
3. Filters, compatibility, interoperability
LibreOffice 4.3 ships with many improvements in document filters: better PDF support, improved OOXML compatibility, new import filters for – get this- Microsoft Works spreadsheets and databases, alongside a whole series of ClarisWorks and AppleWorks filters, igniting in your desillusioned soul the hope that what’s been on this old computer and floppy disks of yours in your inlaws’ basement shall be retrieved at last. For this you must be forever thankful to the Document Liberation project. But, as good as it gets, the juicy bits here won’t come from the nineties, but rather from 2008. Regular readers of this blog will remember these glorious days, just before the big financial crisis, where Microsoft had created the so-called OpenXML standard that was supposed to be totally not competing against the OpenDocument Format, managed to have pretty much the entire standards community swallow it in the most creative ways possible, then fell short of actually implementing it in its own products. A good summary of the whole -technical- story is available here. The irony of life has the uncanny ability to devise ways to enchant us. Well, sort of. The format called “OOXML – Strict”, by comparison to “OOXML-Transitional” was the readable open part of the ISO 29500 standard, known as OOXML. For years, it was obvious that Microsoft Office implemented OOXML-Transitional (the heap of the more or less documented parts of the format alongside undocumented blurbs) and nothing else, creating a situation where one standard, OOXML was existing, and another format, OOXML, was fully implemented and spread all around, yet was an undocumented, proprietary specification. That’s the .docx, pptx, and .xlsx you see everywhere, and the one LibreOffice was busy reverse-engineering for all these years.
This unfortunate situation, we were told, was about to change soon, with the full adoption of OOXML-Strict by Microsoft Office. Helas, if you open a purely OOXML-Strict compliant file with Microsoft Office 2013, the file will be declared corrupt. If you open the same one with LibreOffice 4.3, the file will open and you will be able to edit its contents just like with any other format supported by LibreOffice. In other words, LibreOffice can claim to have a better support of OOXML than Microsoft Office, despite years of unfulfilled promises, pledges, and never met expectations by Redmond. I guess that, just like the old saying goes, promises only commit the ones who actually believe them.
4. Spring Water
Not in the announcement, but we did change somewhat the way we name one of the LibreOffice branches. We started with a naming pattern for our releases that had numbers only and confused the hell out of everyone. We then named the most recent branch “Fresh” and the older branch “Stable”. That turned out to be a very good idea, answered a lot of questions, but somewhat reinforced the impression that the Fresh branch is a development branch or a beta version of LibreOffice, which is by definition not the case (if you want to check our beta, release candidates and development versions, follow this link) .
We thus had to come up with another name for the “Stable” branch, knowing we could not satisfy everyone. “Mature” seemed to be the best term as it was conveying exactly what we meant. Mature, however, at least in English, can have some other unfortunate meanings that are as or even more popular than “LibreOffice Mature” on the Internet. After some try-outs, we came up with “Still”, as in “Still or Sparkling water”. It echoes well with Fresh, and manages to convey the notion of something that is less active, even quiet and “in a more stable state” than something which is fresh and new, yet already a finished product. Of course this concept works well in English and it will have to be twisted, if not radically altered in other languages, starting with French.
Last but not least, this release has been a success and I would like to thank the developers, the growing Quality Assurance team, the localizers, the infrastructure team and of course Italo Vignoli for this tremendous job. Being involved in the actual release (publishing pages, handling social media among other things), I know the kind of excitement releasing a software like LibreOffice induces, but also the skills and the talent it requires: the LibreOffice project is lucky to rely on these teams of various contributors who make it happen, day by day. That is also one of the things that truly stands out in LibreOffice.
I’ve been thinking some more on the past, present and future of documents. I don’t know exactly where this post will end up, but I think this will help me clarify some of my own thoughts.
First, I think technology has clouded our thinking and we’ve been equivocating with the term “document”, using it for two entirely different concepts.
One concept is of the document as the way we do work, but not an end-in-itself. This is the document as a “collaboration surface”, short-lived, ephemeral, fleeting, quickly created and equally quickly forgotten.
For example, when I create a few slides for a project status report, I know that the presentation document will never be seen again, once the meeting for which it was written has ended. The document serves as a tool for the activity of presenting status, of informing. Twenty years ago we would have used transparencies (“foils”) or sketched out some key points on a black board. And 10 years from now, most likely, we will use something else to accomplish this task. It is just a coincidence that today the tools we use for this kind of work also act like WYSIWYG editors and can print and save as “documents”. But that is not necessary, and historically was not often the case.
Similarly, take a spreadsheet. I often use a spreadsheet for a quick ad-hoc “what-if” calculation. Once I have the answer I am done. I don’t even need to save the file. In fact I probably load or save a document only 1 in 5 times that I launch the application. Some times people use a spreadsheet as a quick and dirty database. But 20 years ago they would have done these tasks using other tools, not document-oriented, and 10 years from now they may use other tools that are equally not document related. The spreadsheet primarily supports the activity of modeling and calculating.
Text documents have myriad collaborative uses today, but other tools have emerged as well . Collaboration is moved to other non-document interfaces, tools like wikis, instant messaging, forums, etc. Things that would have required routing a typed inter-office memo 50 years ago are now done with blog posts.
That’s one kind of document, the “collaboration surface”, the way we share ideas, work on problems, generally do our work.
And then there is a document as the record of what we did. This is implied by the verb “to document”. This use of documents is still critical, since it is ingrained in various regulatory, legal and business processes. Sometimes you need “a document.” It won’t do to have your business contract on a wiki. You can’t prove conformance to a regulation via a Twitter stream. We may no longer print and file our “hard” documents, but there is a need to have a durable, persistable, portable, signable form of a document. PDF serves well for some instances, but not in others. What does PDF do with a spreadsheet, for example? All the formulas are lost.
This distinction, between these two uses of documents, seems analogous to the distinction between Systems of Engagement and Systems of Record, and can be considered in that light. It just happens that each concept happened to use the same technology, the same tools, circa the year 2000, but in general these two concepts are very different.
The obvious question is: What will the future being? How quickly does our tool set diverge? Do we continue with tools that compromise, hold back collaborative features because they must also serve as tools to author document records? Or do we unchain collaborative tools and allow them to focus on what they do best?
- ODF TC Creates Advanced Document Collaboration Subcommittee
- Document Migrations
- Fast Track versus PAS
On Tuesday the news that the UK Government had decided to use ODF as its official and default file format started to spread. The full announcement with technical details may be found here; the Document Foundation published its press release on Thursday morning there.
This decision is a landmark for several reasons. First, it is not every day that you see an entire government migrate to a standardized file format. You may hear about government branches using this or that solution, but nothing that is so “abstract” than a file format. This time the UK Government has made the conscious decision to define a coherent policy in handling its digital documents, from the stage where they are created, edited and circulated all the way to the archival phase. It also comes year after the decision of the State of Massachusetts. As such the decision covers a variety of standards (HTML, PDF and ODF); yet its scope, as Glyn Moody rightly reminds us, also means that the devil will lie in the details of the execution.
Most of the migrations from one office suite to another tend to happen without any coherent document management policy. Many organizations moving from, say, Microsoft Office to LibreOffice do not necessarily adopt ODF as their default format and will carry on supporting whatever version of the MS Office file format internally. This usually leads to frustrations and compatibility problems. This time, the UK Government decision takes a different approach. By deciding about the formats first, the UK creates the conditions necessary to have real choices for its government and its citizens, thus setting a level playing field for everyone. Many people have understood this decision as being a move against Microsoft. It is not or at least it should not be. Microsoft Office implements ODF files and its latest editions, as I’m being told are actually quite good at it. What this move does, however, is to ensure no other solution will be at a competitive disadvantage because of a technical or legal (aka patents) lock-in. Of course, it remains to be seen what concrete actions the UK Government will take in order to ensure a smooth transition between proprietary formats and open standards; and it remains to be seen how well it will ensure a proper change management across all of its departments so that its agents feel comfortable with ODF documents and whatever new office suites that may be adopted as a result of the decision. Much could be lost at that stage, but much could be gained as well. And of course, just like with the Netherlands, the decision itself might end up being toned down or take a somewhat different meaning.
While reading among the tea leaves is not my favourite past time, it is relevant to assume that this decision may change a few things around the IT industry as well. By way of an example, I have always been amazed at Apple’s clean support of ODF inside Mac OS X but its constant absence across the iWork editions. Perhaps Apple will feel compelled to introduce ODF files in iWork now? Only time will tell. Cloud solutions will also have to improve or implement ODF and in some cases PDF support in a proper way.
The decision might also have consequences for other European countries and perhaps for the European institutions themselves, as the UK will now be an actual example of a country that has migrated to ODF, and not just one of the countries that made the choice of Free and Open Source Software. This is rare enough to catch the attention of several member states CIO offices.
This move to open standards by the UK Government is also telling of a deeper change in IT industry. We may reach the stage where finally, the average user starts to realize that the old Windows + Office paradigm starts to get exhausted. What can you do with Office documents aside opening them imperfectly in alternatives and opening them in a more effective way with Microsoft software? Actually, not much. Unless you get SharePoint. But the whole point is that in 2014, trying to extract revenue by creating lock-in on office files is no longer acceptable. That, I think, is what the UK Government decision really means. And if I’m right, it’s only the beginning.
Last but not least, this post would not be over without thanking many people whom I’ve worked with for several years in my position at my former company, Ars Aperta, in my former role at OpenOffice.org, at the OASIS Consortium and even today when contributing to the LibreOffice project. I’m thinking about people at OpenForum Europe, the FFII, the APRIL, the AFUL, the OASIS, the now defunct ODF Initiative and everyone else I am forgetting right now but who should be remembered. It’s nice sometimes, after such successes, to turn back and look at the road behind us. It can only give more confidence to walk on the one ahead.
The U.K. Cabinet Office accomplished today what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts set out (unsuccessfully) to achieve ten years ago: it formally required compliance with the Open Document Format (ODF) by software to be purchased in the future across all government bodies. Compliance with any of the existing versions of OOXML, the competing document format championed by Microsoft, is neither required nor relevant. The announcement was made today by The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude.