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Open formats are… the best formats?

Over the past few years there has been a big push to replace proprietary formats with open formats. For example Open Document Format and Office Open XML have largely replaced the legacy binary formats, we’re now seeing HTML5 + JavaScript supplant Silverlight and Java applets, and even the once venerable Flash is on its deathbed.

This of course all makes sense. We’re now in an era where the computing platforms, be it Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, Android, iOS, Linux, etc., simply don’t command the individual market shares (or at least mind shares) that they once used to. Things are… more diversified now. And while they may not matter to the user the underlying differences in technologies certainly matter to the developer. This is one of the many reasons you see lots of movement to open formats where the same format can be implemented, relatively easily, on all of the aforementioned platforms.

So then the question must be asked: does this trend mean that open formats are the best formats? That is obviously quite a simple question to a deep (and perhaps subjective) subject so perhaps it’s better to look at it from a user adoption perspective. Does being an open format, given all of its advantages, translate to market adoption? There the answer is not as clear.

Open by example

Let’s take a look a few instances where a clear format winner exists and see if it is an open format or a closed/proprietary format.

Documents

When it comes to documents the Open Document Format and Open Office XML have largely taken over. This has been driven largely by Microsoft making Office Open XML the default file format in all versions of Microsoft Office since 2007. Additionally many governments and organizations around the world have standardized on the use of Open Document Format. That said older Microsoft Office binary formats (i.e. .doc, .xls, etc.) are still widely in use.

Verdict: open formats have largely won out.

Audio

For the purposes of the “audio” category let’s consider simply the audio codec that most people use to consume their music. In that regard MP3 is still the absolute dominant format. While it is somewhat encumbered by patents you will hardly find a single device out there that doesn’t support it. This is true even when there are better lossy compression formats (including the proprietary AAC or open Ogg Vorbis) as well as lossless formats like FLAC.

Verdict: the closed/proprietary MP3 format is the de facto standard.

Video

Similarly for the “video” category I’ll only be focusing on the codecs. While there are plenty of open video formats (Theora, WebM, etc.) they are not nearly as well supported as the proprietary formats like MPEG-2, H.264, etc. Additionally the open formats (in general) don’t have quite as good quality vs size ratios as the proprietary ones which is often while you’ll see websites using them in order to save on bandwidth.

Verdict: closed/proprietary formats have largely won out.

File Compression

Compression is something that most people consider more as an algorithm than a format which is why I’ll be focusing on the compressed file container formats for this category. In that regard the ZIP file format is by far the most common. It has native support in every modern operating system and offers decent compression. Other open formats, such as 7-Zip, offer better performance and even some proprietary formats, like RAR, have seen widespread use but for the most part ZIP is the go-to format. What muddies the waters here a bit is that the base ZIP format is open but some of the features added later on were not. However the majority of uses are based on the open standards.

Verdict: the open zip format is the most widely used standard.

Native Applications vs Web Apps

While applications may not, strictly speaking, be a format it does seem to be the case that every year there are stories about how Web Apps will soon replace Native Applications. So far however the results are a little mixed with e-mail being a perfect example of this paradox. For personal desktop e-mail web apps, mostly Gmail and the like, have largely replaced native applications like Microsoft Outlook and Thunderbird. On mobile however the majority of users still access their e-mail via native “apps”. And even then in enterprises the majority of e-mail usage is still done via native applications. I’m honestly not sure which will eventually win out, if either, but for now let’s call it a tie.

Verdict: tie.

The answer to the question is…

Well just on the five quick examples above we’ve got wins for 2 open formats, 2 closed/proprietary formats and one tie. So clearly based on market adoption we’re at a stand still.

Personally I’d prefer if open formats would take over because then I wouldn’t have to worry about my device supporting the format in question or not. Who knows, maybe by next year we’ll see one of the two pull ahead.

This post originally appeared on my website here.

  1. January 18th, 2016 at 01:43 | #1

    You write that for audio and video “closed/proprietary formats have largely won out.” But today is not the end of times. As storage capacities increase and network speeds become greater, people will want to do more with their media, not less because of proprietary format restrictions. There is an inexorable drive towards open standards, and while we may have not reached it today, tomorrow will be one step closer.

    –Bob.

  2. Tyler B
    January 18th, 2016 at 08:51 | #2

    Bob Jonkman :

    You write that for audio and video “closed/proprietary formats have largely won out.” But today is not the end of times. As storage capacities increase and network speeds become greater, people will want to do more with their media, not less because of proprietary format restrictions. There is an inexorable drive towards open standards, and while we may have not reached it today, tomorrow will be one step closer.

    –Bob.

    You are of course correct that I am referring to the state of things as they stand now. However i wonder if something as entrenched as the MP3 will ever truly be replaced for mainstream music consumption. Perhaps once everyone moves to streaming platforms there will be the potential to do something like HTML5+DRM+Vorbis but until then I’m just not sure.

  1. December 2nd, 2016 at 09:01 | #1