Supporting more PDF forms in Free Software products (Re: Going beyond advocacy)

Paul Boddie paul at
Thu Feb 13 18:27:39 UTC 2020

On Thursday 13. February 2020 09.58.23 Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> An example to the contrary:
> The tax authority of the German state "Lower Saxony" (almost 8 Million
> inhabitants) is using GNU/Linux desktops in about 12,000 workplaces.
> Now the current government coalition plans to switch to Windows, this is
> political and can be influenced by advocay. As documented on our public
> German speaking FSFE list, it is unclear how this change came to be,
> probably advocay from the different direction, see the threat (in German):

The difference between us as Free Software advocates and those promoting 
proprietary software is usually a large amount of money being available to the 
latter group, meaning that people can very easily be influenced by all sorts 
of "incentives" to switch to particular kinds of proprietary software. It is 
not limited to discounts and rebates on that software, either, nor on bundling 
deals with other proprietary software that an organisation might already 
depend on.

Having a captive customer base provides the revenue stream to introduce shiny 
new features that entice the kind of executive-level manager who wants to put 
their mark on things or the easily distracted and vocal users who don't feel 
that their job is complete without something new to play with. Not having such 
a revenue stream - partly due to decency in not wanting to exploit or control 
users, partly due to the perpetuation of the idea that "open source" is some 
kind of endless free buffet - means that Free Software advocacy is not able to 
drive the agenda.

> This public tax authority contracted my company Intevation a few years ago
> to improve form handling in a few aspects in okular (and the libraries it is
> using), which we did.

This is interesting to hear and useful to know.

> The connection is: If they were planning to use okular even longer, they
> would contract more improvements to PDF handling. They don't because of the
> political process of being forced to go to Windows.

I guess it could be pointed out that local businesses and the local economy 
would benefit if public agencies exercised their right to control their 
technological destiny through Free Software, whereas imposing proprietary 
software is likely to see most of the money leave the local economy. But I 
imagine that the response involves a combination of highlighting local 
"solution partners" doing customisation or configuration and nothing more 
demanding, a demonstration of corporate generosity (such as promises to fund 
"partnerships" with public institutions), and vague statements about the 
supposed merits of trickle-down economics.

> Am Dienstag 11 Februar 2020 23:22:59 schrieb Paul Boddie:
> >  For all I know, my experience was based on a misunderstanding
> PDF is not a good format, in my view. There are several different ways of
> handling form elements and the ability to embed some active javascript
> elements is not a good choice for an open standard for simple forms.
> PDF also does not adhere to the "minimal principle"
> (

I agree with you about PDF as a format, and I imagine that its incorporation 
into public sector standards may have involved simplified subsets. I also 
don't think that a vendor-driven technology should be a standard, either, but 
even the most broadly accepted of various common open standards have a degree 
of vendor manipulation.

> So "misunderstandings" are likely, computer usage is complicated and just
> getting to understand what would be a good next step for which user group
> requires a lot of effort to begin with.
> It is hard work to "track" what the proprietary developers of the PDF format
> do and it needs people that do this for years, which means they need to be
> financed. We at Intevation were toying with how this can be done a few
> time, but haven't found something promissing yet.

PDF serves a need for an encapsulated "print-ready" format, because despite 
printing being rather tangential to many processes these days, it is 
convenient to have documents that are effectively frozen. Potentially 
intersecting with those needs are other needs that should be investigated.

It is possible that the other needs (forms being an example) might not require 
the peculiar characteristics of PDF. If so, it becomes pertinent to offer 
other technologies as alternatives.

> Maybe a crowd-funding for some features? But the work can probably not be
> estimated well enough. A pay-as-you-want windows build of okular? Maybe, but
> it needs serious time invest and expertise.

Why would only Windows users be thought of as paying customers?

> The problem is: Getting somewhere with better form handling in PDF, we are
> not looking at a 20 k€ project, but it would need years with funding around
> 200 k€ per year or more to get somewhere.

I agree. And that brings me onto the topic of sustainable and predictable 
funding for work, which means that we should be looking beyond occasional and 
unpredictable deliveries of funding in amounts that are often inadequate or 
even exploitative (when considering the scope of some projects and the 
obligations that people feel when accepting funding).


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