More on Chem4Word and OpenOffice

I have left my microphone so this is being typed.

I had expected – and am glad – that there would be debate on the release of Chem4Word under an Open Source licence. The latest contribution (, (Dr. Roy Schestowitz)) which I quote in full (till the ruler)

Who can port Chem4Word to

Summary: Chem4Word is an example of Free software which is trapped deep inside Microsoft’s proprietary cage and needs rescuing

From an academic and scientific point of view, Chem4Word’s developer does the right thing by becoming a Free software proponent and choosing the Apache licence for the project (not GPL, which would have been better). The only problem is that Chem4Word helps sell Microsoft Office, which means that any user of Chem4Word (even as Free software) will be pressured to buy a standards-hostile and closed-source office suite. Those who are close to this project are aware of the issue.

This is yet another example where Microsoft is using (as in exploiting) Free software to sell its proprietary software.

Supporting Microsoft software is bad for a variety of reasons, not just because it’s proprietary and standards-hostile. Here for example is a new explanation from Omar, who exemplifies what Microsoft is doing to developing countries where cost matters a lot.

But then the grief doesn’t end here, because the problem will seem even worse if you ponder the fact that most people, around the world, who use computers can barely afford to pay their monthly bills, and that all these people are using pirated software because:

* A) That’s the only software they’ve ever known.


* B) They cannot afford to pay for the annual licensing fee of a genuine copy.

These people have been mass-hypnotized, they’ve been indoctrinated into believing that whatever MS gives them is right, and that MS software is the only software on Earth that actually works. Now, take under consideration that MS is a for-profit organization after all (Actually, MS is a for-nothing-but-profit organization, but ya know), and that sooner or later, MS will start collecting money in all ways possible.

Let us hope that Chem4Word gets extended (or forked) to support Free software further down the stack. It can support all major platforms if it gets ported to office suites such as

“I would love to see all open source innovation happen on top of Windows.”

–Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

I am not out of sympathy with much of this. I have made some of my position clear ( ) and now add some more thoughts. For those who don’t know me and my group some background.

· I am a passionate and public supporter of Openness – I am on the advisory board of the Open Knowledge Foundation ( ), a prime mover in the Panton Principles for Open Data ( and a founder of the Blue Obelisk Open software/data/standards ( ) group in chemistry. I have been outspoken in this area on many occasions and have criticised certain non-Open Access publishers and opponents or obstructers of the free redistribution of scholarly data.

· My group and employer receives support from Microsoft for Chem4Word (I personally do not). I have made it clear to Microsoft that I shall speak my mind during the project and do not feel shackled. I am doing so now.

· I have been critical of Microsoft in the past (e.g. at the time of the Halloween document). I have entered this sponsorship with my eyes open.

· We spent a great deal of time and care drawing up the contract with Microsoft and this is reflected in the Open Source offering that we have now – jointly – delivered.

I am not against commercial companies. I used to work for Glaxo (now GSK) and our institute is sponsored by Unilever. I have lived through the era where IBM dominated the software/hardware market, to be replaced by Microsoft. I have seen many empires rise and fall and I am optimistic that monopolies in this area have the seeds of their own decline. Monopolies are generally bad and I worry about Google as much as Microsoft. I believe that the rise of competition checks on and exposure of Microsoft actions mean that there is less (apparent) monopoly. If Microsoft really were a monopoly I would probably be more concerned – it may still largely have the desktop but it doesn’t have a monopoly on the browser or the Net content.

Most software is closed – ICT is an exception – a shining and great exception, but unusual. Open software requires some form of incentive – a mixture of time and money in the first instance and largely money for sustainability. I wish it were otherwise and if this project can generate models in chemistry for sustainable F/OSS software I will be delighted. Bioinformatics is an exception (I may write elsewhere on this) but there is a great deal of public Open funding. In chemistry the normality is that software is closed, usually sub-standard (with regard to modern software engineering techniques), diminished by needless competitive duplication. There has been virtually no innovation over the last decade (integration and widget frosting, but no new science). We wish to change this – to create an infrastructure where the community can actually do new things rather than waiting for last-century companies to make minor modifications. We are getting there.

An important part of Chem4Word was to design a new approach to chemical information – one appropriate to this century using open standards (XML, RDF, REST, etc.) That’s happened and it’s all in the Open – code, data, specifications, etc. That’s available to the community whether or not people use Chem4Word within a Word environment. And to give Microsoft at least some credit they were early adopters and promoters of XML and Word uses XML rather than a proprietary language.

Porting to Open Office. I would be happy for this to go ahead. Ishould be regarded as an extension or port rather than a fork as forks are a last resort – this is not relevant here where the authors are supportive. It would help to reinforce the (Open) Chemical Markup Language (XML) we have developed and to develop the ideas of quality and conformance that are so badly lacking in commercial chemical software. But it needs support and it needs chemists. Open Source chemists are very rare – we struggle to overcome ideas such as “if it’s free it’s inferior”. Whereas in ICT lots of people are supported by their companies (implicitly or explicitly) to contribute to F/OSS, in chemistry no-one is. The F/OSS is largely ignored – though there are signs of this changing. The pharma companies are particularly culpable – we know of several who use F/OSS but give no acknowledge or encouragement.

If there is to be a port to OO it has to be done by chemists and thus will be effectively within the Blue Obelisk community as we know of relatively few other F/OSS chemists. As I’ve said if someone can make this happen we’d be delighted to help. But the barriers are relatively high – it carries no research reward (most F/OSS chemists are in academia or public research) and so is marginal time and to potentially detriment of career. And I cannot imagine it’s technically straightforward. There has been much in the Word work that has been very intricate and could not have happened without expert knowledge. So my main concerns are that it requires formal support and some very unusual individuals.

This entry was posted in "virtual communities", Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More on Chem4Word and OpenOffice

  1. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - Should I work with Microsoft? « petermr’s blog

  2. jRuston says:

    OpenOffice is probably one of the greatest office suites there is. Far better than MS Office anyway!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *