Background > What does "open" mean? > Examples in word processing
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Examples in word processing

These four programs and formats illustrate some differences between proprietary and open source. Programs like OpenOffice.org may promote better communication and collaboration.

These examples illustrate transparency, integration, and some differences between proprietary and open source, using word processing.

students using open source

Word processors are used for communication and collaboration: creating, saving, sharing, and reading text. The format is the most important feature of a word processor. When a user shares an electronic document with other people they must be able to read it. Ideally, they should be able to change it.

Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat are proprietary programs using proprietary formats. HTML is an open format used by countless proprietary and open source programs. OpenOffice.org is an open source program that can use HTML or the Microsoft Word format (as well as other formats). The Word, Acrobat, and HTML formats are options for an author who wants to share some writing with with a reader. These authors and readers could be educators or students.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word is a proprietary word processing program. Since it uses secret formats and protocols, Word is usually necessary to create or open Word documents (.doc files). If other companies want their programs to communicate or connect with Word, they must pay Microsoft or reverse engineer the secrets in a clean lab.

Most people use Word because the Word format is popular. They can reasonably expect other people to use Word. However, many Word users know how difficult it can be to open a file created in a different, non-Microsoft program. It can also be difficult to open a Word file in such a program. This is partly because Microsoft changes the secrets in each version of Word. New versions mean new or improved features. But documents created in the current version of Word aren't easy to open in older versions. So even users with Microsoft Word have to upgrade regularly to stay current, in the face of these so-called shifting standards.

If an author writes in Word any readers are "locked in" with Word and that version of Word. The readers probably need the same version or a newer version. If the author upgrades to a new version of Word, the readers must upgrade, too. Or the author may use the format of any earlier version, sacrificing some of the newer features. Two authors collaborating on a project need to use the same version of Word or agree on a version and format.

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Adobe Acrobat

Adobe Acrobat uses a slightly different approach. The code is still closed source. Only a purchased copy of Acrobat can create Acrobat documents (.pdf files). (Apple's Mac OS X also allows anyone to create Acrobat documents, and the open source community is trying to reverse engineer the format.) But anyone can download or distribute Acrobat Reader for free. Acrobat Reader will only open Acrobat documents; the user can't make changes.

If an author writes in Acrobat this choice doesn't cost readers any money. When the secrets change in new versions, the author may choose to upgrade to take advantage of new or improved features. The author knows that the audience can get the newest version of Reader for free. But two authors collaborating on a project would still be locked in: they would need to upgrade together, or agree on an earlier version.

A similar example of this approach is Macromedia's Flash. This online multimedia software is closed source, but anyone can download the player for free. Companies like Adobe and Macromedia only charge authors, offering the assurance that any audience can open the files they create, now or in the future.

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HTML doesn't rely on a company to give that assurance. Like plain text, HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) is an open format. Any word processing program can create HTML documents (.html or .htm files). Rather than a single proprietary program, a wide variety of programs specialize in creating HTML documents. (We're using Macromedia Dreamweaver to create this page.) Another diverse group of programs specialize in reading HTML documents: Microsoft Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Opera, etc. Anyone can create a program for HTML, then sell or give it away.

If an author writes in HTML, anyone can read the document with any browser. Likewise two authors could easily collaborate on one project, even if they had different HTML programs (and/or operating systems). Because it's an open, almost universal format, HTML is used for most Web pages.

Notably, both Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat can save documents in HTML. It's not the default format, but these companies responded to their users' needs.

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students using open source

OpenOffice.org is an open source program. By default it saves in compressed XML, an open format like HTML. It can also save in HTML. OpenOffice.org tries to be compatible with the Microsoft Word format, but the community is still fixing many bugs. (OpenOffice.org is the open source version of Sun StarOffice.)

Because it's open source, anyone can download or copy OpenOffice.org for free. If an author writes in OpenOffice.org any readers could download the same program to read the document. Or the author could save in a format to suit the audience, like HTML or Microsoft Word. Two authors could collaborate on one project, even if one used Microsoft Word. See: "Productivity"

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Implications for schools

As these examples illustrate, using open formats or open source programs may have advantages for schools. With Microsoft Word, both educators and students need Microsoft Word to reliably open, change, or move files. With Adobe Acrobat, an educator can create a file with the knowledge that students can read it. But they can't make changes. Open formats like HTML and XML allow educators and students to easily change or move files from program to program or computer to computer.

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This Web site was developed and maintained by the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium. The federal funding for the regional technology consortia program ended on September 30, 2005, and no further updates are planned unless additional funding becomes available. However, much of the content is still useful and NWREL will continue to provide access to this site to support educators and to meet its own technical assistance needs.