This is an open letter to all companies who achieved market success in the 1980s and 1990s with PC-based applications.
The recent controversy over ODF and Office Open XML at ISO shows both that there is substantial interest in document formats, and that there is also substantial commercial rivalry. I do not believe I am on my own in thinking that the writing is on the wall: the days of private proprietary formats, especially binary formats, are numbered and perhaps have already expired.
There are of course many millions of documents archived in these older formats, and it will be a major challenge for archivists to figure out workable and cost-effective strategies for maintaining or grandfathering these documents into newer formats, especially more-or-less lossy standard formats.
Corporations who were market leaders in the 1980s and 1990s for PC applications have a responsibility to make sure that documentation on their old formats are not lost. Especially for document formats before 1990, the benefits of the format as some kind of IP-embodying revenue generator will have lapsed now in 2008. However the responsibility for archiving remains.
So I call on companies in this situation, in particular Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Corel, Computer Associates, Fujitsu, Philips, as well as the current owners of past names such as Wang, and so on, to submit your legacy binary format documentation for documents (particularly home and office documents) and media, to ISO/IEC JTC1 for acceptance as Technical Specifications.* Handing over the documentation to ISO care can shift the responsibility for archiving and making available old documentation from individual companies, provide good public relations, and allow old projects to be tidied up and closed.
The recent controversy over Office Open XML and ODF has occurred in part because both were submitted to become International Standards, which is appropriate for living formats. However, there is still a substantial public interest that would be served by existing documentation of legacy formats being submitted as Technical Specifications or Technical Reports, which, as classes of documents that are less than a standard, will be less controversial but still useful for putting this valuable information onto the public arena. As publicly available specifications, ISO/IEC would make the material available free on their website: free access is a very important outcome.
For nations where the 17 year patent time applies, there seems little reason why formats from 1990 and before could not be quickly submitted and dealt with in this way. However, given the enormous benefits that openness brings in increasing the size of the pie, I suggest that even recent formats, for example formats before 2001, should also be submitted to ISO as Technical Specifications in this way with some appropriate RAND-z IP covenant or license.
Examples of these formats that spring to mind include:
- All Microsoft Office binary and text and media formats, including RTF and Visio
- All IBM/Lotus binary and text and media formats, including Visicalc
- All Corel formats, including WordPerfect
Furthermore, I call on archiving and regulatory bodies to investigate encouraging and supporting this kind of activity. As well as office document formats, there are substantial legacy collections of financial and engineering documents which would also benefit from the same treatment. It should go without saying, but the Macintosh, Amiga, OS/2, and applications on the many different versions of UNIX may also have hosted popular applications whose documentation may be in danger of being lost unless it is lodged with a suitable formal international technical library, such as ISO/IEC.
The ISO/IEC Technical Specification is a good, low-fuss medium for making sure that older formats do not disappear, and without requiring costly rewrites or changes.
*Contact your local national standards body for advise on this, or your local SC34 committee member. Do not get too caught up in whether the document is a Technical Report or Technical Specification.
Note: This open letter concerns old legacy formats. Living and current formats may be more suited for being International Standards rather than Technical Specifications, due to maintenance considerations.