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Open Source vs. Open Standards

By   |  March 26, 2004

William Shakespeare convincingly argued that when it comes to roses and matters of the heart, nomenclature is superfluous – because that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. However, the Bard would have to concur that, for best results, the technology industry should demand rather more clarity in its definitions.

However, this is not always the case.

Take the term \’open\’ – it\’s been used and abused by the purveyors of technology for a couple of decades now, so much so that it\’s difficult to pin down a definition of what it actually means. Now, it should come as no surprise that technology users are taking their turn to define \’open\’.

Today, the term \’open\’ has become associated with software source code, industry standards, developer communities, and a variety of licensing models – four distinct phenomena that are often intermingled in indistinct ways.

Each of these phenomena has a role to play, but it\’s important to understand what each one is – and isn\’t.

Of the four, open standards is the most critical because making a choice today shouldn\’t preclude you from making a different choice tomorrow.

That\’s what open standards are all about. They\’re documents that outline agreed-upon conventions to enable different programs to work together, along with some means to ensure that they actually do. With open standards, your company can pick and choose among competing vendors and not be locked in to any one of them.

Many people seem to think that open-source software offers the same advantages. However, this is not necessarily the case.

Open source simply means the underlying software code is available for inspection and modification. Perhaps the most famous example is the Linux kernel, but there are many others: the Apache Web server, Gnome windowing environment, Mozilla browser, Grid Engine resource management, and, to name just a few.

In fact, the open-source phenomenon goes back more than 20 years to Unix and the BSD licence originated by Bill Joy.

The best open-source projects are the ones that actually amplify a standard, increasing its acceptance in the marketplace and enhancing cross-pla

tform compatibility.

The thing to remember is that licensing terms for software vary. If you\’re a CIO, you\’ll want to make sure you understand how each kind of open-source licence works – GPL, Lesser GPL, Apache, Mozilla, BSD, modified BSD – so you can determine whether it\’s right for the job at hand.

The most important thing about both open standards and open source is whether or not there\’s an open community behind it. What\’s the process? Can anyone join – competitors, customers, students? After all, innovations can, and frequently do, come from anywhere.

Open-source software perhaps owes a great deal of its popularity to the inclusive process and the richness it tends to bring to technology. (The fact that you can download it free doesn\’t hurt either.) But the process also presents challenges.

You can have people and companies contributing code, but that code doesn\’t necessarily become part of the mainstream. It may simply end up in the individual company\’s products. So making the source code open and available is good, but it doesn\’t always mean that everything the community produces will be compatible.

Again, that\’s why standards are the most important factor. They give the CIO something to test against, to ensure compatibility and choice.

The key, after all, is to keep your options open.


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