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I was driving home listening to the local pop music radio station putting out a call for people to apply to be a judge for this year’s Saint John Idol, a city-size radio based version of more well known television shows. Then they stated playing the same song I heard on my drive into work eight hours earlier—a song which annoys me at the best of times—so I promptly switched to CBC radio. There, Steve MacLean was talking about how the listeners could apply to be an astronaut. To summarize, people who listen to top forty radio can become judges in a local talent contest. Listeners of CBC can become astronauts.

Meanwhile I had an argument with my dad about why I don’t use Microsoft Office. Even if Microsoft Office was the best office suite available, if Word was the best word processor, if Excel was the best way to handle data, etc etc, I would still not use it since it depends on the user becoming dependent on it. Microsoft products dominate in the business world mainly because that’s what everybody uses. I, coming from the academic world of LaTeX and PDFs, was astounded to realise that *.doc files are what people actually expect documents to be.

My dad’s argument is that it does what he needs it to do and that’s all that matters. He doesn’t care that he and the rest of the business world are held hostage by Microsoft. Unless a competing office suite can open, edit, and save Microsoft formated files exactly as the native Microsoft programs would do, it has no chance of taking any market share from Microsoft Office. Open Office tries this—and is able to do a lot of things Office can’t, like save as PDF—but it isn’t perfect. The problem is that Microsoft has no interest, as far as I know, in making sure its document formats are understandable by other software in the same way that PDFs or plain text is specifically designed to be. It would be bad for business if you didn’t need Office to use the same Office formats that everybody else uses! The way it’s set up now, it’s bad for consumers instead. But what sense does it make to write a document that you want other people to read and use a format that doesn’t guarantee they can actually read it?

It boggles the mind to think that people are okay with the fact that they’ll have to upgrade to the latest versions of Office as they come out even if the program gets worse. Like XP and Vista, plenty of people are avoiding upgrading to the latest Office because it isn’t as good. But what alternative do they have? People will start saving files in the latest format, and you’ll need the latest Office to see them as they were intended to be seen.

To get back to the point, if you’re communicating with people you better be sure you’re following some sort of standard so that you know the person on the other end will be able to read what you give them. The internet, email, wireless, and cell phones are examples of this. The exact software package shouldn’t matter. (Meanwhile even the latest version of Internet Explorer doesn’t obey formatting standards!)

To get even more to the point, open standards that anybody can understand, read, and follow exist to improve our efficiency and save us from mangled files. Also, they need to be spelled out explicitly so that everybody is aware that people 6’3″ will get their kneecaps shattered if they need to eject from a jet in the astronaut training program.

And that’s why I’m not going to be an astronaut.

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