Considering I’ve been working at Microsoft for the last few years, many would assume that I’m opposed to the notion of open-source software, because it’s “taking away my livelihood” or something equally silly like that.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the idea of free alternatives being out there. I especially love the idea of there being free competition to non-free applications. Competition breeds excellence, especially when the competition is pressuring the folks who make the non-free app to improve the product to justify what you’re paying for it.
Plus, I’m cheap.
However, as much as I like what the open-source movement is doing for computing as a whole, the politics of it can be maddening sometimes.
I mention this because I recommended OpenOffice.org (from this point forward to be referred to as OO.o) to someone as an alternative to Microsoft Office earlier this week. Figuring that if I’m going to recommend something to someone, I should at least try it out myself, I grabbed it and installed it on my machines here at home. And yep, it works pretty well, and certainly would work just as well as Office for most people.
There’s one catch, though: interoperability. When Office 2007 shipped, the standard default formats (.doc, .xml, .ppt, etc) that Office had been working with for well over ten years were supplanted by new XML-based ones. (Don’t worry, Office still opens and saves to the old formats just fine.) Needless to say, a lot of open-source proponents are not happy with the idea of Big Bad Evil Microsoft being the chief proponent of an open document format. Not because it’s a bad format, necessarily, but because it’s Microsoft and everything Microsoft does is evil and anyone associated with them should die in a fire. Again, or something.
Anyhow, sometimes the price you pay for using open-source stuff is that some things aren’t quite COMPLETELY baked. In the case of OO.o, it can read and open Office Open XML documents, and it can save in those formats, but something’s goobed; an OO.o-created .docx or .xlsx or whatever file throws an error when you try to open it again in Office.
So I did a little research to find out what was going on, if it was something I could fix with a little tweaking, what the deal was. And many of the forum threads I happened across responded to the reasonable question of “why aren’t Office Open XML formats completely cross-compatible between OO.o and Office” with “Never mind that, just save to .doc.”
It’s the Why Would You Want To defense, and I’ve seen it before. Ask a community, particularly an open-source one, about a shortcoming of their software over their competition, and without fail someone will come back with “Why would you want to do that? The way we do it is better!” (Come to think of it, Apple is pretty good at this too.) It drives me INSANE. Tools are supposed to work for US, the way WE want them to, and to say “I don’t agree with how you want to use this tool, so I’m going to make you to use it my way instead” is hubris writ large.
You’ve read this far, so I should probably pay off with a punchline: It’s no secret that Google and Microsoft have been at odds over the last few years, and that Google has been playing the “OMG we’re so open and free!” card as their main thrust of their PR attack. So, following the series of Why Would You Want Tos I found while researching this, you might see the same irony that I did from the following Google search: