April 9, 2006

Why open standards matter

Author: Tina Gasperson

I think open source software is a good thing, but I've never bought into the religious fundamentalist fervor of a lot of the circles I move in as an IT reporter. Condemning people for not using Linux instead of Windows, and the strong-arm tactics of some proprietary software makers that try to lock people into a certain product, are just two sides of the same coin. But open standards that make real choices possible? Now, that's something I can get behind.

This week I spent six and a half hours at Government Day, a sub-conference at LinuxWorld Boston led by Leon Shiman, the founder of X.org. Shiman put together the daylong session to raise awareness in the public sector about the need for open standards in IT infrastructure. He brought in people from city governments in Massachusetts to talk about their challenges with IT, and key people from the free software community to talk about the projects they're working on, as well as representatives of each of the corporate sponsors.

Of all the speakers I heard, two really made me sit up and pay attention: David Wheeler of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Luis Villa, a Harvard Law School geek and self-professed "free software bigot."

Wheeler spoke in parables to illustrate just what open standards are and why they are important for IT infrastructure security. First he talked about "magic food," a hypothetical substance that would nourish those who ate it for an entire year, providing all nutrients necessary and costing only one dollar -- the first year -- and making all other food poisonous and inedible forever. "How many of you think that the cost of magic food is going to go up next year?" Wheeler asked. "You probably think I'm picking on Microsoft or Red Hat -- I'm not. We need suppliers. The problem is dependence." He went on to show the audience, through another word picture describing a 1904 fire in Baltimore, how open standards can prevent unhealthy dependence on one vendor. "Firefighters were called in from all the surrounding states," Wheeler said. "But all they could do was stand and watch the building burn, because their firehoses would not fit on the fire hydrants." A standard fire hose coupler could have prevented much of the destruction.

Open standards are by their nature platform-independent, collaboratively developed, vendor-neutral, and do not depend on any commercial intellectual property. Through this talk I began to see how base standards in hardware and software could allow vendor innovation while preventing vendor lockin. Using the fire hose coupler example, without open standards, a fire hydrant maker with a lot of money could force out smaller vendors, patent their fire hose coupler, and start making the only fire hoses that work with their fire hydrant, creating a monopoly. If the pattern for the fire hose coupler was freely available to anyone, it would allow competing companies to create fire hoses that would work with the hydrants, ensuring a free market. The idea is not to put the monopolist out of business, but to open the game to other players.

Later in the day, Villa, who is on the GNOME Board, shared some of his thoughts about open standards and open source software. "It hurts me to even say 'open source,'" Villa said. "I am a free software bigot." For ethical reasons, he believes in the principles behind the movement that Richard Stallman began. But when it comes to government software procurement, he feels differently. "Legislating the use of open source is a mistake," Villa said, "because it takes away the ability to make a choice."

Speaking to the audience of government workers, Villa said, "Maybe 2006 is not the year that Linux ends up on your desktops." But, he encouraged them, if they begin using software that supports open standards now, such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org, then when Linux is ready it will be that much easier to make a switch. "And maybe you'll decide not to make that switch," Villa said. "But at least the choice will be yours."

I wholeheartedly agree. This industry needs open standards implemented and enforced -- now.


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