Making Hybrid PDFs

It’s easy with LibreOffice. Send people attachments you can be sure they can view, but which can also be edited with free, open source software.

Here’s a how-to video that explains how to make Hybrid PDF files – that’s a normal PDF file, but with the ODF source of the document embedded so that anyone with LibreOffice is also able to open and edit it. Both ODF and PDF are widely implemented open standards, so you can be sure that there’s a choice of free and open source software for editing and viewing them and that they will remain accessible in perpetuity.

[youtube http://youtu.be/EuVZcygoZsI]

The instruction sheet I edit in the video is available for download. Naturally, it’s an editable PDF!

☆ Promoting Document Freedom

Today is Document Freedom Day. It’s not the easiest subject to explain. It’s easy to explain why being free to video a police encounter in the USA is important, or why it’s wrong for your eBook to be remotely controlled by a vendor, but many people fail to understand the subtlety of why a document format is important.

Having your work in a format that will still be readable in 20 years makes sense, and being able to be sure when you share a document with others that they will be able to read it and work on it is also good. But people glaze over when you try to explain that an ISO standard is not enough. Having a document format standard that is beyond the control of any individual vendor and is fully implemented in multiple products is crucial, but seems esoteric.

So when it comes to practical actions, most people still just save their work in the format their office software chooses for them by default. They send it out to everyone without a thought for the fact they are adding their own energy to a market monopoly that restricts choice and innovation and sells our future to one of the worlds richest convicted monopolists. It’s convenient now, but who knows if the files will even be readable in the future? The largest corporations can change (Nokia started making rubber products) or even go out of business (I’ll leave you to think of an example!)

The fact it is so hard to explain to ordinary people why their choice of document format matters, why a little effort now can make all the difference in the world, is what led me to the conclusion it was worth promoting hybrid PDFs. As I wrote yesterday on ComputerWorldUK, it is possible to create a PDF that can also be fully edited.

Like ODF, PDF is a standard. Sending a PDF makes the maximum number of people able to read your work, so it’s worth the small extra effort to create it. Developing an instinct to always send PDFs ensures maximum readability, and it’s safe to assume PDFs will continue to be readable for the indefinitely long future. Using online storage instead of attaching the file can be good, but plenty of mobile and out-of-office people will be inconvenienced or excluded by that, so I’ve found people reluctant to rely on it at the moment.

Sending PDFs is the right answer. The only issue is editability. Most people just want to send one attachment, so they opt for the one from their word-processor or presentation program. By a simple software upgrade to LibreOffice, that problem is solved too. LibreOffice makes PDFs very easily, and now also comes configured to create PDFs that can be edited. I’ve created full instructions which you are welcome to pass on to others – and edit if you need to!

While I am naturally a huge supporter of Open Document Format as the best protection for our digital liberty, pragmatically I think educating and encouraging people to send PDFs instead of .DOC/.DOCX files is the best next step. When they learn the benefits of editable PDFs, they are also using ODF, of course – that’s the format that’s embedded in the PDF. But it’s a smaller, easier, less controversial step to send a PDF to all their friends and collaborators.

So celebrate Document Freedom Day with me today. Send a friend my tip about editable PDFs, or just the how-to sheet. The journey to freedom starts with the first step.

☂ Sentinel Principle Article Available

My article proposing using openness sentinels – the existence of an open source co-developer community working on an implementation as validation of the openness of a standard – is now available in the Essays section.

☝ The Sentinel Principle

If we try to define what an “open standard” is, we’ll probably find the definition being gamed by well-funded corporate interests within a short time. But what if there was another way to get an indication that a standard was problematic? I suggest using a sentinel. Read about it on ComputerWorldUK.

☆ Why You Need Document Freedom

It seems everything has a special day. Among all the various red letter days, you may not have run into Document Freedom Day, which this year is being celebrated on March 30th. Don’t for a second underestimate the importance of document freedom. It sounds dull – not just mundane, but the forgotten esoterica of the mundane – but it’s a crucial driver in the dominance of major software vendors. If the other elements of our Digital liberty are to be allowed to unfurl in their natural order, we need document freedom.

Upgrade Arms Race

The phrase “document freedom” refers to the long, subtle game that proprietary software vendors use to ensure they have control over their customers and are able to extract money from them long-term. The format which programs use to save work determines which software can be used to perform the work. By keeping it private, the vendor can make sure that there’s no other program you can use to manipulate the document.

Of course, since you already have the software that created the document that’s not a problem for you. But when you need to collaborate with others, it places the onus on the other person to have the same software as you. As the world became more meshed a “network effect” occurred and a new dynamic emerged, where members of a collaborative network would be forced to keep acquiring new software (framed as “upgrades” but actually a new purchase each time) in order to keep up with the software choices of the rest of the network.

Responding to competitive pressures, vendors may appear to ease their customers’ alarm at this upgrade arms-race by offering “compatibility”, “interoperability” or even “open formats”. But the problem remains all the time there’s really only one piece of software that others can effectively collaborate in a network. Being able to “import” a file is not the same as being able to collaborate. The proprietary vendors have made too much money from locking you in to release you voluntarily.

Document Freedom Day Image

Open Formats

What’s the solution? Ideally, all software of the same genre would use the same format to save work. Then every program could open and work on a file, save its changes and pass the file to another program without any loss of the integrity of the file contents. There would always be differences in how each program handled the work; there might even be some capabilities of a program that no others had, which would be stored in the file for later use without harming the rest of the file. But by using an open, interoperable standard fully implemented by multiple programs, everyone would be free to make their own choices, without being compelled to be a customer of the same vendors as everyone else in the network of collaboration.

In the areas of word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations, such a file format exists – it’s called Open Document Format (ODF). It works with a wide range of different software, and when you save your work in ODF it can be passed to other people for their contribution. The only problem is how few people know. There are two issues; first, the problem is so subtle that they may not realise they are slaves to a corporate master, and second they may not know there’s a solution available.

Document Freedom Day

Document Freedom Day exists to address both of these problems. It has been running for a few years. It provides a day to raise the profile of document formats and demand that our governments, schools, religious bodies, employers and more all use open formats. When they do, we’re all free to engage with them using the computers and software of our choice rather than theirs.

Without document freedom phrases like “if you don’t use Microsoft Word you can’t apply” or “only works on a Mac” negate our choices and incrementally remove our freedoms. So celebrate Document Freedom Day 2011 this year, it’s on March 30th and you can join in easily. Obviously the first step is to start using open source software that supports ODF, like LibreOffice.

If you’re already using a program like LibreOffice, you could simply decide to respond to colleagues or friends who send you a closed format (“I’d love to read your document but I don’t have the program you used to make it – take a look at this web page”), or you could go further and join a local team celebrating in their own way. You might even explore your employer’s policies and challenge the bad practices that spread closed formats (“Why do we always send out Word files when all people need to do is read the document? Why don’t we have a company standard of using PDF for everything that doesn’t need editing?”).

But whichever you choose, it’s worth investing a little of your time to promote freedom instead of sitting quietly tolerating the status quo. As Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach is reputed to have said, the greatest enemy of freedom is a happy slave.

[First published in ComputerWorldUK]

☝ Google, Chrome and H.264 – Far From Hypocritical

When Google announced yesterday that they were withdrawing from their Chrome browser embedded support in the HTML5 <video> tag for the H.264 encoding standard, there was immediate reaction. While some of it was either badly informed views by people who can’t handle indirect causality or astroturf trolling by competitors, some of it was well-observed. For example, when they said:

“Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable
open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources
directed towards completely open codec technologies.”

they indicated that a motivation was to only use “completely open” technologies in Chrome. Yet they did not mention Adobe’s proprietary Flash system, designed for embedded media programming yet definitely not “completely open” even by Adobe’s special definitions of the word.

Continue reading on ComputerWorldUK

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