Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What are Open Standards?

The topic of open standards and open source is often confusing. A colleague of mine, Klaus Dieter-naujoks, once tried in vain to impart his wisdom on this subject to me. Being young and naive, I did not let it sink in until years later.

The official definition from Wikipedia

1. Open standards are publicly available specifications for achieving a specific task. By allowing anyone to use the standard, they increase compatibility between various hardware and software components since anyone with the technical know-how and the necessary equipment to implement solutions can build something that works together with those of other vendors.

Seems reasonable.

2. A standard that is easy for companies to produce and market products or services conforming to the standard. Essentially there is a competitive market without monopoly profits in products or services conforming to the standard. Some standards that are marketed as "open" aren't open in this sense. ...

This implies that there is FUD in the marketplace, which I agree with.

Many people do not understand the difference between open standards and open source. This is a source of frustration for those of us who try to explain it. I know understand why Klaus's face was often red when he spoke with me ;-)

A standard is open if anyone can obtain, read and implement the standard. So who writes the standard? There are two veins of standards - du jure and de facto. These are also sub-types of open standards.

Du jure - these are standards that are developed when a bunch of smart people get together in a room and follow a process to develop a standard. ISO, ITU, UN/CEFACT and others all fall into this category.

De Facto - in latin this means "by the fact itself". If enough people do the same thing, it becomes a de facto standard. This does not invalidate it or in any way mean it is technically superior or inferior.

The main difference is that one has a formal and openly document process for defining and maintaining the standard while the other makes that optional. Even though some specifications are not part of a formal standards body like ISO or ITU, they are still legitimate standards. Those who write them cannot simply do whatever they want. The user communities always have to be considered in maintaining the standard.

The main principle at play is that with all standards, the stakeholders have influence in how the standards are maintained.

Why are Open Standards desirable?

It avoids a situation where those who buy products are locked in to one specific vendor. It is often more important to ascertain that there is good vendor support for a specific standard than the standardÂ’s process to meet this goal. This is generally applicable to many things. Light bulbs, cars, toasters etc. all follow standards. The software industry is no different.

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