Open Tuesday addresses document standards

Published in Tectonic

This week saw Open Tuesday returning to Joburg. Nearly 20 open source enthusiasts gathered at Nino’s in Rosebank to chat over drinks and snacks, and to listen to what open source veteran Dwayne Bailey had to say.

Bailey, who heads the award-winning project started out on the topic of translating software. Having translated various open source programs into the official South African languages, he has extensive experience in the many pitfalls to be overcome. What was originally a side offering on the issue of open document standards developed into a far larger discussion.

Go East my son!

The rationale behind the importance of translating software that Bailey presented was that, as South Africans with English as a first or second language, we tend to focus on the US and the UK. For anyone looking market their software beyond the South African market, it is to these countries that people generally go first. The problem with this is that these are very established and highly competitive.

As he noted, English is only the third most spoken language in the world, leaving vast opportunity for software in other languages. In particular, countries in the East have enormous potential as a rapidly growing market with an appetite for OSS.

To enter these markets, a lot of careful attention must be paid to the format in which the software is developed. Many encoding formats are limited in their ability to represent some characters, such as the ISO8859, which is used in most South African documents.

Bailey recommended the Unicode format as it allocates a specific code to each of the many characters used in the languages of the world. In his experience, it is the only format that can correctly represent Venda.

Another issue in translation relates to representation of dates and numbers. One example we are all familiar with was the US’ 9/11 event, which we all know did not happen on November 9, as our own dating system would suggest.

Setting document standards

Bailey is on the committee that will be meeting with SABS to discuss and vote on whether or no Microsoft’s OOXML document format should be accepted as a standard. Presently Microsoft has made a move to have its format accepted as an international standard.

The process for this entails first being accepted in each country and then having each country vote at the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Next week will see a decision being made on whether South Africa adopts the Microsoft format as a standard, requiring 75 percent of the votes.

As Bailey emphasised, the issue at stake is not one of fighting against Microsoft, but rather fighting for the rights of the user to be able to access documents without them becoming obsolete.

Among those attendees were some other members of the committee and something of a strategy meeting developed, with ideas being shared as to how best to obtain community input.

What emerged was that bombarding the SABS with petitions would not benefit the cause and would merely further irritate those involved.

What Bailey identified as an area that people could help is that of quantifying the issue. Things to be looked at include determining the extent of the legacy issue – how many documents are there and which of these cannot be accessed? Looking forward, what are the exact risks of having two standards and what would the cost be to the consumer?

So far he has been unable to obtain this data and has put out an invite for anyone who may have access to this information.

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