The Pilcrow

A WordPress developer's thoughts on professional and personal development. Written by Karin Taliga

Avoiding vendor lock-in – data portability matters

I have a confession to make. I am locked in.

I recently needed to buy a new laptop. My previous one had done it’s faithful duty for several years and needed to retire. I looked around at my options and realized I didn’t really have a choice. I had to go and spend a lot of money on a machine that lacked features that I wanted and incorporated others that I didn’t ask for.

I am talking about a mac.

Now, I have been an apple user for almost twenty years. Yes, you read that right: twenty years. My family’s first computer was an Mac Plus in 1986. Back then, the difference between the operating systems was way bigger than today. And I have continued being an apple customer, following the ups and downs and then the up up up in the last couple of years or so.

But this time around I wanted to change. I wanted to switch, and I wanted to try Linux.

I wanted cheaper hardware with more possibilities for me to decide. I wanted to be able to add additional RAM some time after my purchase. I wanted to have a physical ethernet port. I wanted to gain more control over my OS and not be subject to app store policies.

But I realized I am locked in.

Cross-platform working environment

Finding apps to do my current work – no big problem. I do a lot of things on the command line already, using tools that are cross platform. Writing code for the web requires mostly a decent text editor with syntax highlighting. There is a free office suite so there is no problem working with and exchanging the most common document formats. If I was to start over as a new computer user today, I would have no problem in going full on linux.

Unfortunately I am not starting over. I have a history, a computer history of 20 years. And I have files I would like to be able to open in the future.

Already Apple has closed some of the door with the move from PPC to Intel. No modern computer today ships with a possibility to open programs with the old architecture. The technology moves forward. I get that.

But what do we do with the files left from that era?

File and data portability

When apple first moved from Mac OS 9 to OSX, the main word processing program was called AppleWorks. AppleWorks was discontinued and Pages emerged as a paid successor. I remember painstakingly going through my old files, opening and exporting them manually to rtf format in order to be able to read them in Textedit on my new platform. (A good reason to keep an old machine with an old version of the operating system around. Tiger FTW!)

In the move from PPC to Intel, Apple also shipped an interpreter for a very long time so that users could open old files and applications and have a chance to move everything to the new standard. If you care about these things, Snow Leopard is the last version os OSX that is able to run PPC programs.

Many software companies became acutely aware of data portability during that shift, and the smarter of them kept that in mind going forward. The Omni group is one example. I like and use OmniOutliner, and apart from being able to export files to 11 different formats – including the OPML standard – the file format itself is just a folder with an xml file inside. I can get my data.

Single platform files

Not all software companies are that forward-thinking or considerate of data portability. Some seem to think that serving a niche market means they don’t need to think about it. They seem very happy to introduce their own file format with a custom extension, only openable by their application that is available on OSX only. They are trusting that their customers are loyal apple followers and full on immersed in the iOS/Mac ecosystem, never changing platforms or – heaven forbid – wanting to access a file from a different operating system or even opening them in a different application.

And it’s not only small niche software developers that are doing this. Giants are also guilty of it. Adobe is one of those companies where data portability and accessibility simply never was a concern of theirs. Once an Adobe user, always an Adobe user.

Now I can hear the Linux advocates shout from the rooftops: Use GIMP! Use Incscape! There are alternatives!

Closed document formats

Again, if I was starting out as a new computer user that might just be good enough for me. I am not a graphic designer, and these programs have matured to be way more advanced that I would ever have need for. But they usually don’t read all the Adobe file formats well. I want to open and read Indesign files. And only Adobe programs can do that.

This is, of course, by design. A closed document format enables Adobe to maintain a monopoly grip on the market.

So to be able to read my files I have to find workarounds. The most obvious beeing using Windows in virtualization just to run Adobe programs on Linux. And that hurts a bit. Mainly because of the learning curve.

I am not completely Windows-illiterate but pretty close to it. Retraining muscle memory for one operating system is one thing but for two? And that’s not even taking the monetary cost into account!

That’s a major productivity hit I was not willing to go through at the moment.  Not likely to happen. Not this time around.

Open format strategy

I have instead started a long term strategy of moving as much of my data as I can to open formats and cross platform solutions. And by open, I really mean able to access. As future proof as I can make it. Although the doc format is not technically open, it is such a standard by now that I think I can count on being able to open those files in the forseeable future. Same with excel sheets.

Any saas service I sign up for and any new applications I begin using will be vetted in this regard.

  • How and where is the data stored?
  • From where can it be accessed?
  • Is it truly cross-platform? Is there a Linux client?
  • Can I get my data out if/when I decide to move?

All new documents I create will take this into consideration. Previously created files and reference materials will be converted to open formats if needed as I come across them. The Indesign files will need to be exported one by one to Indesign Markup Language (IDML), similar to what I went through with AppleWorks ten years ago.

By doing this gradually, I hope I will be able to switch platforms next time I need to upgrade my hardware again. But I will probably always (or for a very long time) want to have an old mac sitting around to be able to access my full history.

Vendor lock-in is a real thing.

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