Linux Know-How provides a collection of introductory texts on often needed Linux skills.


Perhaps that's what people would expect from large corporations, but the reality is rather different. Once, big companies loved inventing nuts that could be undone only by their own service shops. Did these nuts become standard? Hardly. They didn't because there was no public benefit involved, and they couldn't because they were patented. Luckily, now we have open and free standards for nuts. A "proprietary standard" is such a ridiculous oxymoron that it is hard to believe that educated people can believe in it. (Currently, marketing types use the term "de facto standard" or "industry standard" to cover up the ugliness of the lack of standards.)

The era of proprietary standard nuts seems over. But the idea lives on in the computer field. For example, the "standard" MS Word file format has changed numerous times over the recent years. This keeps happening probably for a good business reason: as soon as other companies "reverse-engineer" the current Word format, Microsoft changes it. There are even sub-formats (an MS "fast-save" anybody?). The "standard" is completely closed--Microsoft does not publish any specifications. How can the user benefit from this in a longer term? What is the Microsoft guarantee that MS Word 6.0 file format will still be legible in the year 2020? None I could find.

"... Microsoft's standards are both proprietary and arbitrary- the stealth incompatibility of Office 97 file formats with older versions of Office or the subversion of Open standards like XML with proprietary extensions that require Internet Explorer 5, MS Active server and so on, are sober reminders of what the company does to a market." (Xavier Basora,

"... Microsoft's monopoly doesn't guarantee that your current MS Office will work with any previous or future MS Office. This is in spite of any number of Microsoft apologists arguing that the benefit of Microsoft's monopoly has been a standard for productivity applications." (Wesley Parish,

To add to the confusion, companies typically do not "standardize" on file formats but on the applications that are supposed to produce them. It is like standardizing on a manufacturer of nuts instead of on nuts. How is this supposed to work if the file manufacturer keeps changing the specification to drive their sales?

"We need standardized, open file formats so that users can exchange documents between platforms. The actual word processing software used to generate these documents shouldn't even be an issue." (Ted Clark,

There are a few text/document oriented file formats that are quite definitely more standard than MS Word file format: ASCII, XML (with non-propriatory stylesheets), HTML, SGML, LaTeX, TEX, PostScript, pdf, dvi ... and all of them have excellent support under Linux. The MS Word file format can also be read/written very well under Linux by OpenOffice (and a number of other applications) to cover your current needs. Advanced, "universal," open-source document formats (XML-based) are developed by an independent organization. The story is similar with other proprietary computing "standards" (*.giff vs. *.png anyone? *.mp3 vs. *.ogg?).

Linux, by its very nature, is based on true, published and free standards because "open source" makes the full specifications available to everybody (competitors or not). We believe that the urge for open standards is the very driving force behind Linux. Many people feel that they cannot afford to trust their algorithms and data to a commercial entity, let alone a single one that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness.

Have a look at a draft of this Argentinean law for a taste of the future. It sounds like the Argentineans may be the first to decide that their public records cannot be held hostage by a commercial entity: "... Public National Organizations mentioned in article 1 of this law, will not be allowed to use programs that store data in non-public format ...". Several other countries are also contemplating or enacting legislations requiring storage of public data in public file formats. (Source of the quote:

There is a strong perception in the Linux community that there is a serious problem with the computing "standards" championed by large software vendors. This includes their standards for storing our "static" data , as well as the processing algorithms embedded in our computer codes. Can we afford to trust somebody decide for us when, how, and at what cost we can access our own work? This problem is ignored and even aggravated by people who are paid to take care of it. Linux is a grass-root answer to this problem.

Here is an example from Life, as narrated by "The Economist" (

"IN MAY, the city of Munich decided to oust Microsoft Windows from the 14,000 computers used by local-government employees in favour of Linux, an open-source operating system. Although the contract was worth a modest $35m, Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, interrupted his holiday in Switzerland to visit Munich and lobby the mayor. Microsoft even dropped its prices to match Linux—a remarkable feat since Linux is essentially free and users merely purchase support services alongside it. But the software giant still lost. City officials said the decision was a matter of principle: the municipality wanted to control its technological destiny. It did not wish to place the functioning of government in the hands of a commercial vendor with proprietary standards which is accountable to shareholders rather than to citizens."

My favourite example of how Microsoft, instead of promoting standards, keeps confusing them. For decades, there has been one standard way to write all-numeric date and time in the country I live. This standard is accepted in most countries of the world. MS Excel offers, conveniently in a drop-box, almost any possible permutation to format date/time, except the one required by the international standard. I guess, there is no lesson learned from the billions spent on the "Year 2000 issue".

Last Update: 2010-12-16