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Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Long & Winding Road for Open Standards

Reaching general acceptance of open standards will be long and winding road (Happy birthday, Paul McCartney!). And, to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are many miles to go before we sleep. It's easy to forget that. But then, I see a blog post like this blog post and understand the distance still to travel.

Even well-meaning (if somewhat libertarian) folks can misunderstand the dynamic value of open standards. Here is a recent anti- open standards argument was made:
What I’m really concerned about is about government’s involvement in open standards ... we should be wary of governments like Massachusetts singling out a particular standard for “approval.” This is what Massachusetts is already on board with by approving two file formats - Adobe PDF and the Open Document Format (ODF) as the only state approved file formats ...

If a government is worried about the interoperability and the preservation of documents, it can include in its request for proposal a description of this concern and an “ask” for the best way to address the issue. This approach would be government relying on the market for solutions, not getting into the business of giving its stamp of approval to certain technologies."
It almost sounds reasonable, if it was not turning reality on its head.

Mandating open standards means that the market will provide solutions. Too often, detractors of open standards (and Massachusetts) fail to understand the difference between standards and technologies. There are plenty of good, simple explanations. Bob Sutor has blogged an excellent primer on this subject starting here.

To be clear, requiring open standards does not mean a government has chosen any specific solution or technology. That is the whole point. Anyone, any company, any technology can use that open standard. That is what being "open" is all about.

That electricity outlet on your wall -- its shape, its voltage level -- is based on an open standard mandated by government. It does not in any way limit what device can be plugged into it, or by whom. It is entirely technology, vendor and user neutral ... as an open standard should be.

Selecting appropriate standards (as opposed to solutions) is exactly what governments do all the time. They weigh costs and benefits, the public interest and market impact -- and set standards accordingly for endless things from health and safety standards to manufacturing, cars, electricity transmission and construction codes. We don't allow the "market" (meaning vendors) set their own standards in all cases. We depend on government to set minimum requirements in vital areas. Those are standards. We don't want vendors to decide about the shape of their power plugs. That's would be wasteful, absurd and possibly dangerous.

It is the same for technology. Governments can and should set minimum requirements that ensure certain public needs are met. When it comes to maximizing interoperability, long-term access to public records and competition, open standards deliver those benefits.