Hands Across the Water: Open Source and Open Standards


Having the latest computer technology is great. But what e-government users from the public sector as well as citizens really want is software interoperability. Unfortunately IT managers still only pay lip service to such interoperability, concludes a European project assessing today’s open-source movement.

So reads the lead paragraph of an article called FLOSSPOLS, launched to support Free/Libre/Open Source Software policy support in Europe.  The summary continues as follows:

“Open standards provide independence, not traditional vendor lock-in. They are good for users, purchasers and government from both the economic and competition standpoint,” says Rishab Ghosh, from the Merit/Infonomics research institute in The Netherlands.

Given how often the words "open source" and "open standards" are bandied about in the technical press, it surprises me how little many in the open source community seem to care about the second half of this pairing of related tools.  It's especially surprising since open standards don't need open source, but open source, like all other software does need open standards.  That's reason enough for the open source community to want to know more about them.

Why the low level of interest?  I expect that there are a lot of reasons, but here are a few possibilities:

1.  The technical focus of open source is software specific, while open standards are system specific.  People are attracted to open source who want to build a discrete “something,” while open standards people are looking for ways to connect lots of  “somethings.”

2.  In an open source community, the focus is inward, and directed towards creating the best software, in some cases almost for it’s own sake.  Connecting that software to other software is a necessary eventuality, but its not really on the agenda.  Instead, it’s a downstream implementational detail on someone else’s watch.  In contrast, those that focus on open standards are often (although certainly not always) focused on the outward side of an interface rather than on what’s inside.

3.  An open source community is a meritocracy made up of developers with a largely common focus and solely technically-oriented goals and priorities.  In contrast, open standards are often created by a broader array of stakeholders focused less on specific software, and more on their individual concerns as vendors, end users, government procurement, and so on.  The standard setting process has also evolved in an environment that requires attention to regulatory, safety, antitrust and other concerns that open source development has largely not had to deal with (yet).

4.  Open source is about “locking” the licensing terms but leaving everything else open.  Open standards are about locking certain features, and leaving everything else open.

At the same time, there are some philosphical tenets that are held in common.  For example:

1.  Both approaches use licensing terms that withhold value unless the licensee agrees to certain terms.  For example, you can’t use open source software subject to most approved licenses unless you agree to pass along the same terms.  Open standards work in something of the same way: you aren’t allowed to have the benefits of whatever IPR has been contributed unless you are implementing the standard.

2.   Both techniques guarantee and encourage innovation.  Open source licenses give downstream users the right to create whatever types of derivative works they want, and open standards exist to create wider markets within which vendors provide, and users enjoy, a broader array of products with richer features and more competitive prices.

3.  Both techniques have used trademarks in the same way.  Apache allows you to do whatever you want with Apache code, but you can’t use the Apache name in connection with a fork.  Open standards work the same way, so that someone who buys a given product in order to get an interoperable result (think WiFi, for example) knows that that product will plug and play.

I could go on, and at a future time will.  But the point is that the two approaches have more in common than is often appreciated by either side.  And appreciate it or not, open standards are still the glue that holds systems together.  Without them, things simply don’t work together. 

In the end, open source software simply isn’t as useful unless it can take full advantage of open standards, and the reverse is also true.  That’s a good reason for both communities to learn more about what the other is all about.  For those in the open source world, it’s important to understand what open standards are, how they are created, and most importantly why they work.  Just as open standards folk need to respect open source licensing, open source fadvocates need to realize what it takes to make open standards happen. 

That doesn’t mean accepting RAND terms that are incompatible with open source licensing.  But it does mean taking the time to listen and learn.  And better yet, getting involved.

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