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Viking Lander image, Public Domain, from Nasa

The Vikings, eBooks, and Open Source

August 5, 2019 - by Marcel Gagné

If you were hoping to read a rollicking tale of those Norse seafaring explorers of old, heading out in their dragon-headed ships to explore and conquer distant lands, launching enthusiastically into battle with sword held high above their horned helmets, you may be disappointed. If, however, a story about exploring the cosmos and open document formats are your thing, then you've come to the right place.

In 1976, Viking I and Viking II became the first spacecrafts from Earth to successfully land on the planet Mars. Over the next few days and weeks, humanity was gifted with the first high-resolution pictures from the surface of the red planet, a time that I remember with an ongoing combination of awe and nostalgia. Most amazing, and most interesting to the 16 year old me, was that the Viking landers had experiments on board to look for and detect Martian life. Okay, so they were looking for microbial life, as opposed to something more epic like the warring peoples of John Carter's Barsoon, but it was still awesome. 

As it turns out, the results of those experiments were inconclusive. Decades past, and eventually, in the early part of the 21st century, somebody decided that they should go back and take a look at the data from those original probes, to see if there was something they might have missed in "Life on Mars" department.

This wasn't a simple task; nothing as easy as opening a document or searching with Google. The problem is that we were looking at really old technology. The data from those missions was captured on microfilm, and I'm going to guess that many of you will have no idea what I'm talking about. As far as anybody was concerned, however, this was the recording technology of the future. In essence they took the vast collection of paper pages that were printed out, took high resolution pictures of them in very tiny film, and wound them on spools that would then be, at some future time, loaded into a microfilm viewer. Now, microfilm viewers are a little hard to come by these days. As you might imagine.

The reason that I mention the Viking landers as my example is because it was a big, audacious, and hugely expensive project where keeping the results of the information you gathered in a way that future generations (or even just the people 40 years down the road) could access it, was probably extremely important. 

You may have heard stories of people who wrote documents in the original versions of Microsoft Word, who would then try to open them up, years later, with the newer versions of Microsoft Word, only to find that they were unable to do so. Curiously enough, and of interest to the Open Source enthusiasts among you, products like OpenOffice could read the Word documents that Microsoft could not. But I digress . . . You see, the beautiful thing about microfilm, is that it is a fairly easy technology to reverse-engineer, and scientists and researchers were able to take those microfilm images and digitize them, so that the data I spoke of could then be accessed in our modern, digital age. 

Spoiler alert, as it turns out, looking at the data from Viking 1 and Viking 2, it turns out that the data is still inconclusive. We may, or may not, have discovered Life on Mars, but we can't be one hundred percent sure.

Fast-forward to today. A few months ago, Microsoft announced that they were getting out of the eBook business starting in July; meaning now. If you didn't know that Microsoft had been in the eBook business, you can be forgiven. It also goes a long way to explaining why they are getting out of the eBook business. Unfortunately, for those who bought eBooks from Microsoft, a painful lesson is coming home to roost. Those books will stop working. 

To be fair to Microsoft, they are refunding customers for the books they never really owned, even though they paid for it. You might still have a copy of the book, but you can no longer read it. The reason they stop working is because of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM allows companies, like Microsoft, to put digital locks on the things you thought you bought and you thought you owned (like those eBooks) with the intention of making it impossible to copy, share, and/or pirate. In fact, it's just hard, not impossible, but that's a story for another time. 

We could spend a lot of time here talking about the evils of DRM, of whether we actually own anything we 'buy' electronically, but what I want to talk about is the future. Somewhere, in that future, you may want to read a book you bought, or listen to a song, or watch a movie, or go back to archived data from a spacecraft that landed on another planet decades ago. 

Imagine if classic works like "Hamlet" or "Frankenstein" were written in a format that could not be read by modern technology and you start to get the idea. If for no other reason than to "future-proof" those books, music, or data, we need to make sure that no media ever gets recorded in a closed or DRM'ed format. 

Open Source licenses, properly executed, work to ensure that the code from which applications are built, is not only freely available in a 'share and share alike' fashion, but also that programs can be extended, modified, or maintained long after the developers have moved on. Open document and image formats, properly executed, work to ensure that future generations, or applications, will be able to read them. Open music formats work to ensure that you and your loved one's favourite song will still be playable in your golden years. 

We are often reminded that Open Source is big business these days, a fact that I don't deny, but it's important that we never lose sight of that word, "Open". We, as customers and technologists, must demand that our information, in whatever form it takes, remains open and unencumbered by digital locks.

One parting thought. I am strangely ambivalent on the subject of subscription content. I don't have an issue with Netflix or Spotify, to name two examples, because there's no suggestion of ownership. You don't buy an eBook or a movie from subscription services and typically, customers of these companies go in with their eyes wide open. More or less. I still don't believe that content should be encumbered with DRM for the reasons I have already mentioned, but when I watch Lucifer on Netflix, no one is suggesting that I now own a copy. 

About Marcel Gagné:

Marcel Gagné

Marcel Gagné is LPI's Editor at Large. The "Cooking With Linux" guy. Writer and Free Thinker at Large. Science, Linux, and technology geek. Long time columnist for Linux Journal, LinuxPro Magazine, Ubuntu User Magazine, SysAdmin, and others. Author of six books including "Linux System Administration: A User's Guide" and the "Moving to Linux" series of books. Promoter, advocate, and evangelist for Free and Open Source Software on radio, television, and YouTube. Occasionally opinionated. Always confused. Loves wine, food, music, and the occasional single malt Scotch.