The Family Office revisited

February 1, 2012

As expected, my first attempt at a Family Tree for Star/Open/LibreOffice has resulted in some useful feedback (thank you), so here is a new version of the chart (and I suspect it may not be the last revision…).

Note perfect

January 31, 2011

Possibly the greatest asset any choral singer can have is to be married to a pianist with endless patience, who doesn’t mind bashing out parts repeatedly until they have finally lodged themselves in the cranium of the singer. For those who lack this asset, the internet provides several alternatives.

Cyberbass contains a library of popular choral pieces in midi format, with the individual vocal parts ‘picked out’. However, it’s a one man site, so it’s quite limited in content, and it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether it will work on any given PC. The site owner also expects you always to play the midi files online, or buy them from him on CD. Playing online is a waste of bandwidth and isn’t always convenient. So nice idea, but poorly implemented.

ChoralWiki, home of the Choral Public Domain Library, is a library of scores which have been contributed by enthusiasts. As a wiki, it has attracted nearly 10,000 scores from nearly 1,000 contributors – far more than a one-man effort can ever achieve. For popular works (e.g. here’s the Vivaldi Gloria) it will contain scores in pdf format, midi format, and whatever the format used by the program used to write the score.

There lies the rub. If you happen to have bought the same software as the contributor (e.g. Encore – a cool USD 400, or Finale – a mere USD 600, or Sibelius – a snip at UKP 529, or Capella – only USD 250), you’re in luck. Alternatively, to be sure of being able to use all the scores on ChoralWiki, you could just buy all of these software packages, plus many more I haven’t listed.

However, for that amount of money, you could probably hire a decent accompanist whenever you needed one.

If ever there was a class of software crying out for an open file format which any program could use, it must be music. This is how music works! Imagine the chaos if the Halle and the Berlin Phil and all the other orchestras had their own proprietary way of writing down music, which no-one else could use. Musicians know the value of having common standards for music – why have software comapnies been allowed by musicians to inject their poisonous secrecy culture into music?

My way round this lunacy has been to use MuseScore, a wonderful piece of free software which has just done a creditable job of ‘reverse engineering’ scores from some midi files on ChoralWiki. Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir (possibly from a Sibelius original) worked really well, including lyrics – not sure how that works ; the same composer’s Christe, Adoramus te (possibly from Encore) required a bit more manual effort. But I now have a CD with both works, with the tenor part picked out nice and loud – the way I like it:-)

Locked out by design

December 14, 2009

ODF text iconI once asked a corporate IT person what his company’s investment was in office software. He gave me the cost of their Microsoft Office licences – which was the wrong answer. Anyone can go out any buy the same licences – they aren’t an investment – they don’t create any competitive advantage; they’re just a cost of doing business (and a completely avoidable cost as is a free alternative). The company’s real investment – their intellectual property – is in the millions of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, etc. they have created.

Software vendors have tried on and off to lock these documents so users needed the original software to use them. This can go horribly wrong, as some users of Microsoft Office 2003 have just found out to their cost, when the software refused to let them get at their documents – their own intellectual property. This is a design feature of Microsoft Office software which happened to misfire.

What it highlights is that no-one outside Microsoft has a clue what is hidden inside their secretive software. It also highlights the importance of not using a secret format to store valuable office documents. The safe way to store valuable documents is in OpenDocument Format (ODF) – an ISO approved open standard which isn’t owned by any one company. It’s the best guarantee against being held to ransom one day by a software supplier.

British Citizens or Residents read on…

June 3, 2008

With a little persistence, I have persuaded the UK Prime Minister’s Office to accept an e-Petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to adopt the Hague Declaration of the Digital Standards Organisation.

If you are a British citizen or resident, please consider supporting this petition by voting online before 6th July.

In practical terms, the Hague Declaration is a call to governments to:

  1. Procure only information technology that implements free and open standards;
  2. Deliver e-government services based exclusively on free and open standards;
  3. Use only free and open digital standards in their own activities.

The Declaration recognizes the crucial role that digital standards play in guaranteeing human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, as these rights are increasingly expressed in the virtual, rather than the real, world. Examples of digital standards are Hyper Text Markup language (HTML) for web pages and Open Document Format (ODF) for office documents.

Free and Open Source software like Firefox and then use these standards to build the software that people need to take part in the virtual world, regardless of their language or financial circumstances. Free software built on free standards – a roadmap to end the digital divide.

The deadly embrace

May 21, 2008

News sources are starting to leak the news that Microsoft is about to announce support for Open Document Format (ODF) in MS-Office 2007, and will participate in the ongoing development of ODF through OASIS, the industry body for XML standards. This fairly arcane announcement has the potential to revolutionise the way we use office documents – the spreadsheets, word processing documents, presentations etc that are churned out in their billions every day.

Traditionally, office software users put a price on their assets by counting up the number of MS-Office licences they had bought. Then people began to realise their real investment – their intellectual property – was in the documents they had created with the software. But the only way they could access their intellectual property was by buying software licences from a monopoly vendor – Microsoft. This didn’t feel right?

In response to this, the industry standards body OASIS started to draft an open standard for office documents that any software developer could use. Despite being a member of OASIS, Microsoft ignored this activity, even when the resulting Open Document Format (ODF) was adopted by ISO – the highest level of standards.

However, market pressures – especially from public administrations – continued to demand the standard. Microsoft responded in predictable fashion by trying to create its own rival standard, OOXML, and used its considerable influence to get this adopted by ISO. This commercial pressure to adopt a hasty and ill-conceived private standard has nearly broken the international standards process.

However, the pressure for ODF has continued to grow. There was a certain inevitability that Microsoft would be forced to bow to market pressures and announce its acceptance of ODF. However, Microsoft’s traditional approach to standards has been characterised as Embrace, Extend, Extinguish – i.e. attempt to claim ownership and take control of a standard through abuse of its near monopoly position.

Proponents of ODF need to defend against this by setting up independent testing for software conformance with the standard. The testing needs to be accessible not just to the Suns and IBMs of this world – but also the KOffices.

While proponents of ODF are celebrating that a victory has been won, it is more likely that the real battle is only just beginning.

Back to School

April 2, 2008

I’m always looking for opportunities to promote open source in general (and in particular) outwith the “FOSS ghetto”. The day job is not exactly a hotbed of open source (at our last corporate Technology Conference, Steve Balmer gave a video keynote about what a great customer we are). So when I noticed that our in-house Perspectives periodical was looking for contributions, I was happy to offer my services. In exchange, they kindly sent me off today on a feature writers’ workshop. I hasten to add this was before I submitted my contribution:-)

Anyway, half way through the afternoon, I took a call from David Meyer at ZDNet looking for an instant reaction to the news that Microsoft have succeeded in getting ISO accreditation for their proprietary OOXML file format, in opposition to the ISO accredited ODF used by I duly gave him a few quotes. To be honest, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Microsoft has succeeded, as one illustrious industry guru predicted two years ago.

Where does this leave as usual, we will support whatever file formats our market present and future requires. In an ideal world, this means our engineers would just read the OOXML specification and code it up. Alas, as many commentators have pointed out, the OOXML spec is not fit for purpose, and following that route simply wouldn’t give a usable result. To quote from an engineer who works on this stuff for us and knows what he is talking about:

…there is a fundamental problem for all filter developers: the mandatory part of the OOXML spec will not be enough to implement proper MS Office filters but these filters are what the market wants. Developing an OOXML filter is totally useless as there is no application on this planet that follows this spec verbatim.

So, it’s back to the old game of five man years’ or more reverse engineering what Microsoft’s software actually does, rather than following the incomplete and inconsistent dog’s breakfast called the OOXML spec – which the world’s highest technical standards body has just blessed with an ISO number. Ho hum.

MS-Word having a bad dayAnd how was the writing course? well, apart from troubles with the word processor I had to use, I thought it was a day well spent, and my piece on open source is much improved as a result. When the article comes out, I’ll let you have a look (copyright permitting) and you can judge for yourself. Meanwhile, keep on looking for similar opportunities outwith the ghetto, and never underestimate the realities of dealing with the world’s most successful monopolist.

Dance with the Devil

March 7, 2008

When the OpenDocument Format (ODF) was promoted to ISO 2660, I gave two cheers – the final cheer was reserved for when Microsoft adopted the standard as the default file format for MS-Office. I also called for independent conformance testing for ODF, something the ODF community has not yet achieved.

So, Microsoft’s announcement today that it was launching a community-based initiative which would work on conformance testing for ODF and OOXML also deserves a cheer – but only one, as it did not include the biggest players in the ODF world, the Community (, Sun Microsystems (Star Office), IBM (Lotus Symphony), and RedFlag CH2000 (RedOffice).

As a member of the Community Council, I was disappointed that we were not invited to take part. I will be requesting the Council to ask Microsoft formally for an invitation, and to urge Sun, IBM, and RedFlag to join in too. Microsoft have been claiming recently that they are committed to greater ‘openness’ – let’s see if they are prepared to work with us and turn this into a genuine community activity.