The Go-Between Format

So Many Connectors

While I was considering the power plugs that appeared in last Friday's posting, it struck me that there was an untold story worth considering there. The plugs are from a replacement power supply I have now used several times for various gadgets. At one end is a block with a dial for me to select a voltage, into which I can insert a mains flex. At the other, the lead terminates in a two-pin female connector. I can then select the tip that works with my gadget and insert it in the end of the lead, selecting the polarity in the process. Power Adaptor

It's not perfect, but this device solves the vendor-imposed mismatch by offering an intermediate connector that allows close to an any-any match. Looking at this I realised we may all have lost sight of the problem we set out to solve in 2002 with what's now called OpenDocument Format (ODF).

What we wanted was an equivalent (better!) solution for portability and longevity of editable documents. The way this was being achieved in 2002 was actually not by the plugs themselves (all the various then-undocumented binary formats called ".DOC") but rather by an intermediate format, Rich Text Format (RTF). Weakly specified and widely implemented, this was the way most of us created word-processing documents that we could be reasonably sure would be opened on any platform in any word processor.

While an RTF specification is now available (ironically not in RTF format), the problems it presented - and still presents - make it unusable as an open standard with open source implementations. Why? Well, reasons include:

  1. The license is incredibly restrictive;
  2. The specification has no participative process to control its evolution so changes at random;
  3. It's too weakly specified for rigour in implementation across many platforms;
  4. There is no open source reference implementation;
  5. Because it has been tracking MS Word for years, there is no one version everyone is implementing.

So I wonder if people have been incorrectly comparing OOXML and ODF? Surely the correct comparison is of ODF with RTF? And surely, regardless of the state of OOXML, the problem remains and ODF is the best solution for it, providing a baseline interchange format we can all use?

Just in case you need inspiration from the plug tips too, see what they say to you in this brief animation my son made.


Sadly, if you think about it, RTF's main utility was that it opened in Microsoft Word. I believe many "Word" compatible programs (particularly on the Mac) were actually saving .rtf files, even if they then changed the ending to .doc so as not to freak anyone out. I know I've manually done the same myself.

Posted by dave on July 10, 2007 at 01:00 AM PDT #

Not to ignore the point of your post, but the problem with these power supplies is that the manufacturer of the supply, and the tips, just doesn't produce the range of tips that are needed in a timely fashion and they charge outrageous prices for them when they do. I have the Kennsington Power supply, its universal voltage + AC/DC but they've been slow as heck producing the tips, quite a few I need for very popular devices are not available at all, I waited for 5-months for the one for the Sony Digital camera(don't mention memory sticks) and when it arrived for $12.95, $9.95 plus P&P they supplied two, one of which I didn't need, didn't fit the camera and wasn't meant to, it was just a sop to make you feel better for paying $9.95 for what should have cost less than $2 with a 100% markup. They've subsequently continued to lag, don't supply a dual lead for charging 2x lower power devices at the same time etc. At least with software available as open source, rather than just an open standard, someone else can pick-up the manufacturing process and continue to make enhancements. Alas the same isn't true in the physical world.

Posted by Mark Cathcart on July 10, 2007 at 02:17 AM PDT #

Mark: So you mean even the "standard" can be a lock-in trap? Hmm, the lessons keep flowing...

Posted by Simon Phipps on July 10, 2007 at 02:21 AM PDT #

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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