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Dale O’Gorman [opinions]

File formats: approaching the freedom crossroad

fsmsh.com/1900 [free-software] [freedom] [formats]

When I first began to use GNU/Linux, I didn’t really care about free software, I just thought it was exciting to be able to mess around with code like that and see what could happen. I felt that it was fantastic that you could get under the bonnet; so to speak, and play with the code which powered everything.

I thought that was what I loved about the system. I was wrong, what I really fell in love with was freedom.

Freedom is a very important idea and sometimes we forget how important it really is. We live in a world of ideas and it is the freedom to talk about those ideas which gives these ideas purpose.

When we trade some of our freedom for convenience, we risk all of our freedoms. Does anyone remember Office 97? All in all, Office 97 was a good package but it contained a little easter egg which surprised a lot of people. Files created in Office 97 could not be opened in earlier versions of Office.

I felt it was fantastic that you could play with the code that powered everything. I was wrong, what I fell in love with was freedom

What’s important to note here is that the nature of words had not changed; what had changed was that Microsoft had decided that you couldn’t read your own information any more. Microsoft are not the only company to do something like this—Autodesk is another. People might say that this is not such a big deal, but I would beg to differ. You or I created the information contained in these files but someone else is then deciding if we can freely access it.

When you use free software like OpenOffice.org or Koffice the file format is always available to examine. This means that your information will always be available, regardless of the software version used.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

These words have not changed in hundreds of years, yet vendors of non-free software would disagree. They would say that those words have somehow become different between one version of a program to another and you should upgrade to their latest version in order to read those same words. It’s a similar thing which happens in the realm of operating systems. When I buy a computer in order to do something (for example writing a book, designing a house or simply listening to music), I believe that it is up to me to decide what I can do on my computer. I’ve paid for it, I pay for the electricity which powers it, so I should be able to what I want with it. If I have purchased a Video or DVD, I should be able to play it on my computer without having to break the law. If I write a book, I should be able to disseminate it as I see fit. If I design a house, I should be able to use that design as I wish.

I don’t believe these restrictions are good for anyone.

The reason I use free software is because of the freedom that comes with it. People all over the world celebrate this freedom everyday. This freedom is such a powerful enabler that it is quite astonishing. People are creating new businesses with free software everyday and being successful in doing so. Google is a great example. Google didn’t choose GNU/Linux to build their business upon solely because it was available for no cost, but because the freedom inherent with free software has allowed them to build a whole new way of categorizing information, and now everyone all over the world benefits.

As we head into the future of TPM computers and DRM enabled operating systems, there is a crossroads fast approaching. Do we take the right fork and give up control of our own information and digital thoughts? Or do we take the left fork and embrace freedom and the choice to decide for ourselves? This is the thought that I leave you with.

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