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November 18th, 2009:

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 4: Format Lock-In

Computing certainly isn’t about operating systems. Nor is it really about apps. It’s about files. Data is what we create, modify, store, and distribute in electronic form, and the ways that our data is stored give shape to almost everything else we do in computing. Being able to move from one platform to another thus depends almost completely on whether or not we can bring our files with us.

I’ve been working in front of a personal computer on an almost daily basis since May of 1979, and over the past thirty years I’ve accumulated thousands of made-by-hand files. Much of that is text, and I’ve had almost complete success bringing document files forward down the years, bouncing from one word processor to another by using various format-conversion tools. SF stories I wrote in CP/M WordStar in 1980 have passed through WordPerfect for DOS and several major releases of Microsoft Word and still live on my writing projects thumb drive. I keep a commercial Windows utility called Quick View Plus on hand to extract text from extinct file formats when necessary, which has been pretty rarely in recent years. Still, it’s there if I need it.

It’s a lot tougher once you get away from text. There are no conversion utilities for Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Visio, and as best I know nothing will import files created on either app. This is probably also the case for QuickBooks, and probably a great many more major applications that I’ve simply had no need for and no experience with.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this kind of file format lock-in is the only thing keeping some of these companies profitable, or for some of them simply in business. Computing is mature in terms of the basic mechanisms we use to manipulate data: text editing, page layout, spreadsheeting, presentation, raster drawing and vector drafting, image processing, and database query and display. Small points may be patentable, but the fundamental machinery is now older than any surviving patents. Building an app that could load and edit an InDesign layout file would take some work but no genius, and if done would be a major competitor to InDesign, not only in new projects but (crucially!) in existing projects as well. Adobe guards its file formats with its life because its file formats are its life.

Alas, my files are my life too. And when Adobe’s IP rights bump up against my IP rights, who wins? Adobe, of course. Hence my hatred of activation: I don’t use newer versions of InDesign because Adobe can turn them off remotely and basically hold my work hostage if they choose to, perhaps because they’re too stupid to tell a RAID from a separate machine, or because they’re hungry enough to want to force me to pay for an upgrade that may have no new features that I need…and maybe no new features at all.

I have no general Stallmanesque animus against commercial software. I have a fortune in boxed apps on the shelf, and have never minded paying for them, even when they were upgrades. However, upgrading must be my choice, and migration of software to newer machines as time passes must not require new licenses.

Even commercial software that doesn’t require activation often demands a service and a tray icon, constantly popping up notifiers trying to upsell me to something I neither want nor need. In a mature market, there’s less demand for upgrades, and people can be happy using software for a long, long time. I can understand the vendors’ perspective and their need to be selling all the time to stay alive in a mature market. I think they should recognize my right to find it annoying and turn to software that doesn’t yammer so much and waste my cycles.

The bottom line here is that some apps are difficult to move away from; for me, the two killers are InDesign and Visio. Yours may be different, but I think most people who do creative work at the keyboard have a few. The difficulty lies entirely in proprietary file formats, and leads me to the infuriating conclusion that Windows is necessary only to allow me access to my own files.

The good news (for small values of “good”) is that there are tricks to be played. More in the next installment.