Proposal: The Open Data Format Initiative
January 29, 2002
Worse, Outlook Express only exports data to Outlook or Exchange. Outlook, in turn, has its own proprietary format. It exports to various applications or to a text file, but the exported data is incomplete (for example, it does not save the date and time of the e-mail).
My e-mail data was trapped inside Outlook Express, and there was no easy way to get it out.
Outlook Express and Outlook -- while severely limited in how they export data -- can import mail messages from a wide variety of competing products. By the same token, competing products can import from them as well.
But I didn't want my dependence on Outlook Express replaced with dependence on another piece of software. I wanted the e-mail saved as plain text and the attachments saved as separate files.
Eventually, I found some tools that claimed to read Outlook Express data files, but like competing e-mail clients, they depended on reverse-engineering the Outlook Express file format. Using them meant trusting that the reverse-engineering was 100 percent complete.
The annoying part was that this wasn't data I was not supposed to read. Had I the time and inclination, I could have cut and pasted each one from Outlook Express into a text editor and saved it. This was my data, but I couldn't easily do what I wanted with it.
The problem is not limited to just Outlook Express. Most programs -- word processors, spreadsheets, databases -- save user data in a proprietary format. They tend to be similarly generous with importing and stingy with exporting. Many offer the option to save in a standard, publicly defined format, but often these do not preserve 100 percent of the formatting or data.
It's no mystery why every application wants to be a data sink; it's a competitive advantage to lock users into your proprietary format. But users are suffering, prevented from manipulating their own data as they see fit.
Worse, in the future, users may have access only to the data files, with no ability to run the program that originally created them. Programmers seeking to reverse-engineer the format of a particular application can use that application to save various pieces of data and observe the file that results.
If a future programmer had no documentation of the file format and only a small sample of data stored in that format, it might be impossible to extract the data.
I propose a solution to this problem: the Open Data Format Initiative (ODFI).
ODFI could begin as a place to aggregate information and could offer programs for interpreting proprietary data formats. But long-term, it would have three goals:
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, " Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000. He lives in Redmond, Washington, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.