Open-format documents benefit the tech community

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Collaboration on computer files has become commonplace across the Internet, especially in academic and office environments. Thanks to open-format programs like OpenOffice, documents that used to be constricted to a single operating system or program can now be opened and edited anywhere. Jack can send Jill a Word document or a PDF file without worrying whether or not Jill will be able to open it. She can even view it online with a program like Google Docs. These days, with the preferences of some being fiercely stubborn as they are (e.g., Jack refuses to use a Mac, Jill refuses to use a Windows machine), it would seem silly to transcribe information in such a way that it could not always be transferred between two people.

But in fact, closed formats are continually taught and used, and this hurts the tech community. When someone is forced to use a specific operating system or program, it severely limits the malleability of his or her work. Even if an office provides its employees with computers, an employee with a different setup at home is unable to work on a file from there. And if that office should ever decide to change its computers, it is likely that the closed format it required would cease to be usable.

Open formats, in contrast, enjoy a wide base of support. They do not require a Windows specialist or a Unix guru to explain how they work. Moreover, development surrounding open-format documents is often more fast-paced, as many people can work on a single task without being at the same location. Apple can make a program like Pages (a page layout program) that opens Word documents without bowing to the format restrictions of Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Access, though, uses databases that can only be viewed and edited in Microsoft Access, which is only available for Windows. Access is still used here at Carnegie Mellon.
In the class Introduction to Database Management, databases are taught using Microsoft Access. Though the class doesn’t focus entirely on Microsoft Access, it does promote it by requiring its use for homework.

As an alternative, there are many open-format and portable database solutions, such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, and BerkeleyDB. Access may have a shallower learning curve than these other database solutions, but it’s like using water wings on students who are already capable of swimming.

For those that don’t like Macs: Imagine being in a class that required the use of a Mac. It would be frustrating, especially for those who invested in a personal computer and, unable to use it, were forced to inhabit a Mac cluster.

We, as a community, should not support closed formats. There is no reason to use them because there are perfectly usable open-format alternatives. Teaching and requiring the former’s use only serves to stunt the tech community, both now and in the future.