The Closed Format Dilemma

In 20 years time, I want to be able to find a particular photograph or video I’ve produced with relative ease, and more importantly, be able to open it. I take photographs mainly with Nikon’s NEF raw image format, which is a closed standard that Nikon is reluctant to share. While many companies and individuals have managed to reverse–engineer it, Nikon change the format with every new generation of cameras, and as its a closed format, its likely that the third-party software wont be able to read it. While there are no guarantees that I’ll be able to open the files 20 years on, its likely that I will be so its not of a big worry.

But closed film formats are a small worry compared to the problem that is DRM. Imagine this — you buy a track on iTunes with DRM, only iTunes and the iPod can play it. Ten years down the line, someone other than Apple takes over the online music industry and you buy their device and use their music store. You want to be able to play your iTunes Music Store track on your new system, but you can’t because of DRM. iTMS is one of the only music stores that uses DRM and lets you burn the track to a CD, so all is not lost1 that is if Apple still exists and produces iTunes, or you can run an old version on your current system. The reality is even worse with subscription based music services — stop paying, and all your music is gone, if the music store folds, your music is gone, and if you want to use a computer or portable player that doesn’t support the DRM used by the store, you have to switch subscription services or buy all your music again. Not nice.

So now, I try to make sure everything I produce is in an open format, but its just not always possible. I write applications with C#, an established ECMA standard, but I wouldn’t call .NET exactly an open standard. Sure there’s the Mono project, but everything I produce is designed to run exclusively on Windows or as a website. However there is always a balance to be found, and .NET is comparatively more open than VB6 and a lot of its predecessors, and programming software and languages moves so quickly I’d be surprised if code I write today is still of any significant use twenty years down the line.

  1. Except for some fidelity from the conversion to audio CD and back to MP3 or whatever you’re converting to.
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