Free formats exist for one reason only: they are supposed to work everywhere. There are proprietary and free operating systems out there, and their programs may be proprietary or free too. You, as a user, choose the one you like, the one that works for you, because software is a tool. If you want to pay the expensive tag price of Photoshop, by all means do so. You want a free alternative, then you get the GIMP. They are tools. You will see people whine about the good and bad sides of this and that tool, but when it comes to it, they are tools. If you aren’t happy with your tool, you get a new one.
So, what is the problem in the computer world? If anyone can go and grab a new tool anytime, then there’s no problems, right? That’s when reality beats us with a large troll club. Software deals with files, those little bits and bytes that store information on your computer. Those files are not all equal; some are images, some are video clips, some are office documents. When you switch from one tool to another, you risk not being able to work anymore with your older files, because they work only under the tool you were using, and your new shiny tool, in spite of being so cool, can’t open them.
What if there was a format that would work under both programs? Chances are you already know there are such formats, so why does the problem remain? Why do free formats need to be promoted? Because the tool makers, the software developers, don’t deem it as a priority to make their creations work with free formats. And because the programs don’t work with free formats, the users aren’t aware of them or have grown a distaste towards them. It’s an egg and chicken problem.
- Did you know that many webcomics are only available under GIF, even though PNG is a much better format?
- Did you know that OpenOffice.org doesn’t import SVG properly? Nor does it import Vorbis, Speex, or Theora at all?
- Did you know that Microsoft Office does not import OpenDocument?
- Did you know that Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Flash have no idea what to do with a SVG file?
- Did you know that artists that release their works under a Creative Commons license do it usually under a proprietary format?
- Did you know that there aren’t many video editors that work with Theora, in spite of it being the standard for video on the Web?
These and many others are examples of why you need to get the word out, why it’s important to raise awareness of free formats. Not only because of the general public, but because of the content creators and the software developers. So that whatever tool you use on whatever system you are dealing with, be it a mobile phone, a laptop, a media center, or even your fridge, they will all be able to open each others files.
This article is a simplification of why free formats are so important. We don’t intend to patronize anyone, but our aim here is to reach everyone — even your aunt Gertrude — and make them understand that there are many obstacles to make the digital era a better place.