Yet more writing on the wall for proprietary formats

So after a bit of meandering, the State of Massachusetts is backing the OpenDocument standard as the standard format for office applications. At one level this is just another example of how customers are revolting against proprietary file formats (which lock them into the vendor) and demanding Open, vendor-neutral formats. But MA’s decision is a particularly important one because it appears Microsoft fought hard for the Microsoft Office Open XML formats, including a significant amount of lobbying and some quite amazing (MA-specific) adjustments to some of the nastier aspects of the Office XML license.

As a result of this, the community has had the opportunity of seeing Microsoft’s “Talking Points” and soundly rejecting them. We’ve also seen how desperate Microsoft is to protect their Office cash cow.

Why is this important for Electronic Lab Notebooks?

  • It demonstrates (yet again) that Open File formats are an issues that needs to be taken seriously at the highest levels. Hopefully as governments around the world begin to insist on open formats, corporates will be being to take the problem seriously too.
  • The arguments vendors use to justify their proprietary file formats are increasingly being shown to be false.
  • The increasing experience with open formats shows that it isn’t that hard to build systems that are open, and give customers first-hand experience of the benefits of Open Systems.

Electronic Lab Notebooks systems benefit more than normal from open file formats because:

  • Almost ELN systems are made up of software from more than one source (commercial vendors, as well as a large number of small, focused applications developed in-house).
  • The information in ELN systems often needs to be accessible in 30 years or longer (“Lifetime of the Company” is very typical). The chances of the original application being available is minimal.
  • ELN systems often need to do an awful lot of unusual stuff, which wasn’t anticipated by the original designers. Yet the market for ELNs is comparatively small compared to the overall market for products like Office. So ELN functionality is often an after-the-fact addon implemented internally or by niche vendors (like my company, Amphora).

My feeling is that the market is going to punish ELN vendors who are still holding to their closed proprietary file formats, and preventing their users getting access to their data (by not releasing APIs). I spoke to one vendor at a conference a few months ago and he was genuinely confused why anyone would need their data outside their ELN – and felt strongly that moving to an open file format would be unduly hard for them. Duh. All they’d have to do would be to publish their internal documentation and they’d be OK – no code changes required. But that would require giving up control….

In contrast, there are ELN suppliers who do strongly support open file formats, and encourage our customers to access their data which is stored in our systems, etc. Our PatentSafe product is one, but there are many others. Did I mention we’re growing like crazy….. I guess the market likes vendors who look after their customers’ interests 🙂

For more information you might want to readWhy OpenDocument Won (and Microsoft Office Open XML Didn’t) by David A. Wheeler. There’s also a very interesting letting from Adam Barr (of Microsoft) to Jeff Raikes (Group VP at Microsoft) explaining the reasons for Massachusetts’s choice, and why it shouldn’t be a problem for Microsoft to work with open formats rather than resisiting. Replace “Microsoft” with your favourite ELN vendor and see how it feels…

I hope it won’t be long before companies start to require “that all electronic documents “created and saved” by state employees would have to be based on open formats”. That will be a major advance for the interests of customers.

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