Open Data Formats: Intro and Documents

This post is the first in a series regarding the use of open data formats. The series will cover practical uses of open data formats in documents, music, movies and graphics and may continue to grow as people express interest in one area or another.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned such topics as Free and Open Source Software and as well as Open Data Formats.  However, in previous posts, it’s mostly been rhetoric, and not much in terms of practicality for you, my devoted readers.  Now I would like to introduce you all to the more practical side of FOSS and open data formats. Today we will go over a brief introduction to the notion of open data, as well as go over some practical uses of open data formats in the real world.

The Skinny

Open data formats are buzz words that I use to describe any data format (also known as file formats; think MP3 and Word Docs) that adheres to the principles of open-ness: anybody is allowed to see the specification of and create implementations of the data formats free of charge.  This notion of open-ness is in opposition to the notion of proprietary data formats, where an individual or company must pay royalties to the owners of the data specification in order to implement it in their own product.  Examples of open data formats include the Open Document Format and the Ogg Multimedia Format.  Examples of proprietary formats used to include the Microsoft Word Document Format (which has since been opened, though the extent is still in contention), and still include Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator files, Quark Files, AutoCAD files, and many of the formats used by big-name software companies.

As with everything, there are clear benefits for all parties who use either type of format (open or proprietary).  Briefly, proprietary formats allow companies to lock customers into their product line by only allowing officially sanctioned applications read the files, e.g. only Adobe Photoshop can completely read and render .ps files.  The downside of this is that should you want to move away from an application for any reason, you may lose access to all the data you have created.  Does creating data in a proprietary format mean you should not be able to access all of your hard work?  It is effectively bequeathing the proprietary license holder the rights to your information.  That seems wrong to me. 


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