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This title sounds like a silly question. Open file formats serve everybody (except the monopolist), free software users and proprietary software users alike. Free software typically supports open file formats by default, and then maybe also some popular proprietary file format by necessity. Is there ever a situation where supporting/writing free software hurts open file format?

Indeed there might just be one very interesting example: the docx plugin for firefox. I will leave the debate as to whether MS PL counts as a free software licnese to the lawyers (or philosophers). What I would like to point out is, whether this license is free enough, this particular piece of software is hurting us.

I have been writing a series of articles (zh_TW) against the spread of docx file format by unconscious docx victims onto more new victims. Considering

  1. that most people are still using the old doc format,
  2. that switching from old versions of MS Offices to MS Office 2007 may require more training than switching to OO.o,
  3. that globally governments choose odf over ooxml,
  4. that the economy is down,
  5. that Taiwan government is under strong BSA pressure to fight piracy,
  6. that searching for office 2007 amusingly invites google and yahoo to suggest keywords related to office 2007 piracy searches,
  7. that docx is not even 100% the same as ooxml which barely passes thru the compromised ISO process as an international standard under controversies and with warnings from legal experts,

... considering all these reasons against adopting docx, you would think that my task cannot be too difficult. Difficult it really is. Taiwan is a country

  1. where computer is a synonym for Microsoft Windows,
  2. where IIS is far more popular than apache as web servers,
  3. where ads sponsors pay money, only to advertise not their own product but rather MS IE (zh_TW, with screenshot),
  4. where hardly anybody questions the fact that the nation-wide University entrance exam website demands the students to use IE (the registration page, which is now removed because the exam takes place in July).

That's fine. We will deal with these challenges with the wonderful technologies provided by the entire FS community as our support. Communities such as OFSET (of which I am a member) and technologies such as usb key booting have been greatly helpful to our advocacy endeavors. But now there is one little problem for which I have to explicitly beg for help: Can we have a better odt support than docx support in Firefox, please? I will omit a dozen or more criticisms on my anti-docx articles that I was able to counter. I will just present you this one small dialogue in which I end up speechless:
"Please, don't spread docx." (zh_TW)
"You act like a dictator, like a wolf cloaked as a sheep." (zh_TW)
"OK, whatever you feel like calling me. (zh_TW, with a funny drawing explaining the difference between open file format and FS) But tell me, please, which is more like a dictator? Requesting your employees to use odt for file exchange or requesting the recepient of your mail to convert docx?"
"Requesting odt is more like a dictator. With docx, I can view it with firefox."

Well, we cannot ask Microsoft to stop sponsoring the firefox docx plugin project. But I would like to ask the volunteer developers, bug reporters, document writers, and blogger who promote this plugin, to ponder these questions: Which is more important: open file formats or free software? Would you rather develop and/or help spread FS at the price of hurting open file formats? Is there a more urgent need for docx or for odt compatibility in FF considering that docx [as offered by MS Office 2007 now] will be phased out even by Microsoft in favor of true ooxml [as endorsed by ISO] ? Would you please consider devoting your talents and efforts to help perfect and spread the odt plugin rather than the docx plugin? Of course I know you meant well when you joined such efforts. Besides, it is you, not me, who made more contributions to firefox. You get to decide how to spend your voluntary efforts. I would just like to ask you to consider the possibility that might have never occurred to you, that helping one specific controversial piece of FS may actually hurt the entire FS landscape as a whole.

In Taiwan, we have made some progress in FF adoption, little progress in OO.o adoption, and virtually none in GNU/Linux desktop adoption. Now FF providing better docx compatibility than odt compatibility may hurt Taiwan's odf adoption, and ultimately hurt Taiwan's difficult escape from Microsoft's complete dominance. Admittedly Taiwan is but a small country. Yet it has a high concentration of hardware manufacturers. For example, if only hardware manufactures in Taiwan could be convinced to ship diskless computers, the debate about which OS to preload would become moot. Or even if only they could be convinced to ship motherboards that boot usb keys as its first priority, there could be some visibile changes in the awareness of GNU/Linux, and InstallFests can be performed on usb keys instead of on bulky computers. (Please, urge your people to demand such computers, especially when buying in large quantities.) Stopping the unconscious spread of docx and raising the adoption of both FF and OO.o at the same time (not the adoption of one at the cost of the other, is crucial to the escape of Taiwan from Microsoft's control for the next few years.

I would also like to take this opportunity to ask for a legal/technical help. Can someone knowledgeable about both ooxml and DRM please enlighten me: How is it possible for a file format having backward compatibility with its DRM-enabled predecessor to have an implementation that is released under an OSI-approved license? How is it possible for such a format to be declared an open standard at all? I could not find enough relevant and deep discussions over the drm features of ooxml by searching "ooxml drm". What baffles me is simple logic: how can FLOSS ever be compatible with DRM, which operates under the principle of security by obscurity? (And by the way how come the drm possibility and danger of ooxml is not widely discussed?) I would appreciate if you refrain from flaming OSI because of this and from digressing into the debate between OSI and FSF over the name of Libre Software. I am most interested in debates over the oxymoron "open source DRM" using docx/ooxml and its open source implementation as an example.

At the same time, I would also like to ask Sun and IBM and other big companies to devote a tiny bit of your resources to the odt plugin for firefox. As you both know very well that OO.o alone is not the most important driving force behind global odt adoption. Choice is. Star Office and Lotus Symphony are among the list of software that supports odt. How about helping FF get into that list, or at least into the "readonly" list? Google, how about making chrome read and display odt? If so, we may then advocate chrome over firefox. Or opera. Or safari. Or any gratis browser if only it reads and displays odt, whether it is free as in freedom or not.

Because, to me, open file format is more important than free software, if I ever have to make a choice. Because without true open file format free from DRM legal threat, there can be no competition, and there can be no free software.