Achieving Document Freedom in Four Easy Steps

In order to achieve document freedom, we must learn to produce interoperable documents. Unfortunately, this means that we have to review most of our editing habits, and start thinking about several details which make a difference: the office suite, the document format and the fonts.

At the end, we will realize that if we start thinking about interoperability when we create a new document, we will eventually be able to exchange transparently any of such documents with any other user.

Use LibreOffice

Today, LibreOffice is the best available option for true document freedom, as it is the only free office suite independent from external influence. In fact, other office suites, although open source, are under the umbrella of either another open source project or a large corporation.

LibreOffice is developed by one of the largest free software communities, under the umbrella of The Document Foundation. TDF is a German based, independent, not for profit entity – supported by governments, corporations and small software companies – which is overseeing and coordinating LibreOffice related activities.

LibreOffice is released under a copyleft license: a key asset of the software. Copyleft licenses offer several advantages over other OSI approved licenses as they create an environment where corporate sponsored developers and volunteer developers can co-operate, without the risk of seeing their contributions used to create a proprietary software package.

Thanks to the positive effects of the copyleft license, the LibreOffice hacker community has been growing steadily and – although based on a majority of pure volunteers – is comparable in size with the largest open source software projects. This safeguard the independence and the future of LibreOffice as a free office suite capable of competing with proprietary offerings.

Use ODF

ODF is the acronym of Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument. It is an XML-based file format for office documents, which was developed with the aim of providing a standard file format for desktop productivity.

ODF was developed by a technical committee in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) industry consortium, based on Sun’s specification for OpenOffice XML, the default file format used by the “parent” of LibreOffice. In 2006, at the end of a lengthy review process, ODF was approved as an ISO/IEC International Standard under the name ISO/IEC 26300:2006.

ODF is recognized and supported as a document standard by several governments, companies, organizations and software products. For example: NATO with its 26 members uses ODF as a standard for documents.

ODF is the native file format of LibreOffice, and of many free office suites and applications: AbiWord, Apache OpenOffice, Calligra, GNUmeric and NeoOffice. In addition, ODF is also supported by proprietary office suites and applications.

An open standard for office documents represents a dramatic improvement over legacy proprietary file formats or pseudo-standards.

In fact, an open standard protects users against the effects of vendor lock-in, because the availability of the format specifications and the fact that the standard is managed by a truly independent organization such as OASIS foster document freedom.

ODF documents – ODT text documents, ODS spreadsheets and ODP presentations – will always be free and accessible for everyone, because they are based on open specifications. This means that implementing ODF is a straightforward process, which provides predictable and consistent results independently from the software (because developers can rely on the same public specifications, and can leverage the availability of the source code).

Trying to simplify the concept, writing an ODF document is easy – and therefore the result is predictable – because developers can access the same specifications, which are easy to understand, and can rely on the same tools. Therefore, it will always be possible to open an ODF document (even a very old one).

Of course, in order to protect users freedom, LibreOffice reads and writes – often perfectly – many flavours of proprietary documents. These files, though, should be used only to exchange contents with other users, and not to store information.

Use Free Fonts

LibreOffice uses free fonts, which can be installed on any personal computer, in order to ensure the visual consistency of documents between different hardware platforms and operating systems.

A word processing document or a presentation created with LibreOffice can be opened by any other personal computer using LibreOffice, independently from the platform or the operating system. The two documents will look identical, because the fonts will be the same (while the software will take care of all other details, such as margins, alignments and line spacings).

On the contrary, proprietary office suites use their own fonts, which are commonly replaced with similar but metrically different fonts when opened by LibreOffice or any other software. This can give a visually different result from the original, and creates an interoperability issue (even if document contents are preserved).

In fact, proprietary fonts create an artificial compatibility issue between otherwise identical documents, as the perception of a visual difference overcomes the fact that all content is preserved.

Combined with the ODF standard document format, free fonts will preserve not only the contents but also the visual appearance, for the foreseeable future. There are several sources for free fonts, which offer a large selection able to fulfil every personal taste: Google Font, with over 630 font families; Open Font Library, with almost 400 font libraries; and Font Squirrel, with a very large selection.

Free fonts improve interoperability, and increase document fidelity. So, their deployment should become a habit for every personal computer user.

Use Templates and Styles

Templates and Styles are the last component of a perfectly interoperable document, because they help users in producing standard compliant XML tags to describe the different elements (like titles, subtitles, headings, paragraphs, headers and footers, page numbers, cell contents, etc.). A standard compliant XML tag will be extremely easy to reproduce by the receiving software, and this will result in a document which is identical to the original one.

In fact, every element of the document has a tag such as <title> or <text>, which describes the function. In addition, there are other tags which describe the font and the size, and other attributes such as the character weight (regular, bold or italic) and the line alignment. If a user deletes a Template or a Style element, he will also delete the associated XML tag, which will be replaced by a generic tag.

The lack of the right XML tag will represent a problem for the receiving software, which will try to interpret the generic tag instead of reproducing the right one. The result will be a document which might – or might not, according to the behaviour of the software – be different from the original.

Conclusion

True document freedom can be achieved by using free software, open document standards, free fonts and standard document templates and styles. Users will have to learn a different process, in four easy steps, to improve the interoperability with other users, independently from the platform and the operating system

A small effort, for a significant improvement, as the result will be true document freedom (and transparent interoperability).

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