OSS Watch Briefing Paper: Open Standards and Open Source
Open source software and open standards are two of the key interventions in technology policy, whether that policy is made by governments, public sector organisations, or companies.
Open standards can ensure interoperability and assist portability, allowing the switching of solutions and avoiding vendor lock-in. Standards can also help to create new markets, and can also encourage innovation within markets by imposing useful constraints.
Open source software offers benefits of greater flexibility and the potential for reduced development costs and better software quality through collaboration and reuse.
Together, open source and open standards provide the basis for solutions that offer interoperability, cost reduction, and flexibility; no wonder they are seen as such a powerful tool for technology policy!
However, whats often less clear is how the two interact in practice. There is, for example, a fairly widely-held view that open source software is somehow inherently more likely to support open standards. However, in practice this is not necessarily the case, and there are a number of barriers that can actually make it less likely for open source projects to implement standards than their closed-source counterparts.
For example, implementation of a standard requires access to documentation; in many cases this involves payment for access, or paid membership of a consortium – something that open source projects may have difficulty with unless a benefactor or sponsor does this on their behalf. Also, if a project wishes to publicly claim that it implements a standard, this may involve a formal conformance process requiring paying fees for testing and accreditation.
So for policy makers and CIOs, the selection of standards, and the standards setting organisations they originate from, can have a significant impact on the availability of open source solutions to meet their requirements.
Mandating standards that involve patent licensing fees, mandatory expensive conformance testing and assurance, and restricted access to documentation will exclude many potential solutions and providers. This will have the impact of increasing costs, and potentially eliminating the benefits of standardisation altogether if organisations have little practical prospect of switching suppliers.
Conversely, if standards are selected that provide a low barrier to entry to open source then this can be good not just for individual solution procurement, but for interoperability as a whole.Unlike closed-source solutions, with open source it is possible to inspect the implementation of standards and to conduct independent interoperability and conformance testing rather than rely principally on vendor claims. The presence of open source implementations can also influence uptake of a standard; either by making open source libraries available for use within other products, or by providing a good target for interoperability testing for other entrants.
Open source and open standards are key components in technology policy; but its important to know how they can work together – and potentially work against each other.
A new OSS Watch briefing paper provides an overview of the main issues facing implementation of standards for open source projects and developers; for more information see Open Standards and Open Source.