FOSS Open Standards/Importance and Benefits of Open Standards

The benefits of using open standards have been alluded to in the introduction. Here we shall delve into more details on the importance and benefits of open standards.

Benefits of Using Open Standards


Numerous benefits are obtained if an organization ensures that its technological and IT procurements and implementations follow open standards as far as possible. First and foremost, there is less chance of being locked in by a specific technology and/or vendor. Since the specifications are known and open, it is always possible to get another party to implement the same solution adhering to the standards being followed. Another major benefit is that it will be easier for systems from different parties or using different technologies to interoperate and communicate with one another. As a result, there will be improved data interchange and exchange. It will not be necessary to use the same software or software from a particular vendor to read or write data files. For example, if a multinational organization requires that all its offices worldwide use office software applications that can read and write files using the Open Document format - an open, standardized XML-based file format from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).[1] An individual office will have the flexibility of using whatever office software that is best suited for it and at the same time be able to read, write and exchange documents with other offices in the organization.

Using open standards will also offer better protection of the data files created by an application against obsolescence of the application. If the data file format used is proprietary then, should the application become obsolete, the user may have a difficult time converting the data files to another format needed by a new application. However, if the data format follows an open standard and, hence, is known, either the new application will be able to use it as it is or it will be easier to convert the data so that the new application can use it.

It stands to reason that if a user demands that open standards are adhered to, there will be more choices available as more vendors can participate to offer solutions and it may be possible to even mix and match solutions from multiple vendors to provide best-of-breed solutions as far as possible.

If open standards are followed, applications are easier to port from one platform to another since the technical implementation follows known guidelines and rules, and the interfaces, both internally and externally, are known. In addition to this, the skills learned from one platform or application can be utilized with possibly less re-training needed. This can be contrasted with the usage in applications of proprietary standards that are not openly published and where there is inadequate information publicly available about them.

The benefits obtained with respect to using data and file formats whose specifications are publicly published and widely accessible cannot be over-emphasized, especially with respect to an organization that possesses huge amounts of data stored electronically. A national government is a good example of such an organization. If the data formats are not known or easily available, the organization may find it difficult to migrate or change its information systems since it can be prohibitively expensive or even impossible to convert data files.

National Considerations


From the national viewpoint, the usage of open standards by a government is even more important. In this information age, a government will need to use IT solutions to ensure that it has adequate and reliable information to enable it to govern the country effectively. It is vital that these IT implementations make use of standards that are open as far as possible. In cases where open standards are not available, the government may want to consider other standards that are freely available for usage and implementation. It should also take into consideration how open these standards are and whether they have the possibility of becoming open standards later.

All this can help ensure that there is less likelihood of its information systems being locked in later by any single technology or product. It is also in the interests of national security that open standards are followed to guard against the possibility of over-reliance on foreign technologies/products. Imagine the implications to a sovereign nation if the electronic records of its citizens are kept in databases that can be accessed readily only by proprietary software from a foreign vendor or the documents of the government are kept in a format that belongs to a vendor who thus has total control over its accessibility both now and in the future.

e-Government Projects Specify Open Standards

Many countries have started on e-government projects or initiatives, most of which have policies stating that, as far as possible, open IT standards and specifications are to be followed. Countries that have such policies include Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.

The European Union's EIF, a framework to facilitate the interoperability of its member countries' e-government services, recommends the use of open standards for maximum interoperability.

In addition, more and more public sector agencies all over the world have adopted or are considering adopting policies that require open standards.

Another important national benefit is that open standards will make it easier and, in some cases, the only possible means for local companies to participate as major players in supplying services and solutions to the government. This is because the local companies usually lack the strength and resources of multinationals and may be strong only in certain areas or solutions. The government can leverage open standards to mix and match solutions from different suppliers in order to give the local suppliers a chance.

It is a reality in the IT world that the main language used and supported by all mainstream software is English and because of this it is sometimes difficult to produce electronic documents in another language. The availability of an open character coding standard, Unicode,[2] designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of diverse languages makes it feasible for the translation and localization of software and electronic office documents for nations or cultures whose language is not English.

Embrace, Extend and Extinguish Tactics

Much has been said in this document of how open standards can prevent product lock-ins by a particular vendor but users have to be aware that sometimes open standards can be taken advantage of by some vendors. There have been cases whereby particular vendors have tried to exploit open standards (e.g. standards like Kerberos, HTML, SMTP) to their own ends with a view to lock-in customers to their products and/or services by deploying what is termed "Embrace, Extend and Extinguish (EEE)" tactics.,[3][4]

The vendor, first of all, announces that it will support a particular open standard in its products and it may even contribute resources to the development of the standard. It then implements the standard in its product and markets them.
In the implementation of the standard, the vendor adds in proprietary enhancements to the specifications of the standard, claiming that these are needed to address customer needs or to differentiate its products from the competitors. These will be made usually in areas where the standard is silent or where the specifications are not well defined. While some standards do provide some leeway for different implementations to differentiate themselves, it is important that the enhanced implementation be done such that a basic implementation can still interoperate with it. A vendor that is using EEE tactics will not ensure this and as a result, products from other sources may not be now compatible with this vendor's products. The problem really arises if the vendor's products are widely used. If that is the case, other implementations of the standard may have to be modified so as to make them compatible with this enhanced implementation since the latter is dominant.
After some time, if the enhanced implementation of the standard becomes so widely used that the majority of implementations support it, this implementation effectively becomes the de facto standard instead. Since the enhancements are proprietary, the vendor has now essentially hijacked the open standard and made it proprietary.

Particular Benefits of Open Standards


Open standards are particularly beneficial to some IT activities or services. Some of these are examined in greater detail here.

File Formats


Modern information systems generate data (lots of it in many cases) that have to be stored in some form of electronic file formats for efficient storage, retrieval and exchange. If their specifications are not publicly known, only software and systems from the owner of these proprietary formats can readily access them. Also, the exchange of information is essential to the functioning of modern society. This exchange will be severely hampered if non-open file formats are utilized as products from one vendor may not be able to retrieve, access or store the information from the products of another vendor properly.

In some cases, while the format may be known, it may be the property of a particular party and this party may control the way the format evolves or is used. In such cases, users can have very little say or control over the format. Also it may be possible that the owner may not publish the format specifications at a later stage for a new version. So while compatible systems can be created that can access the files now, there is no guarantee of this when a newer version comes out. In addition, there have been cases where, when a proprietary format becomes popular and is widely used by the industry, the owner of the format starts to impose restrictions like charging a fee or royalty charges (if it is patented) for using the format at a later stage. The case of Microsoft attempting to charge flash drive makers and manufacturers of devices, such as digital cameras, a licensing fee for using its File Allocation Table or FAT file format[5] is a good example of this.

All this shows that it is of utmost importance that electronic file formats should follow some specifications that are accessible to all interested parties and also be developed by processes that are open and easy for any party to participate. In other words, they should be implemented using open standards. It is vital in today's information-centric society that the data from which information is derived can be stored and exchanged following standards that are open so that no single party or even group can control the access to this data.

Office Applications


This lack of complete compatibility between documents created using MS Office and the competing alternatives has prevented some users from using or migrating to the latter. This effectively results in a specific product/vendor lock-in.

This example illustrates that open and standardized file formats are needed to give users the flexibility and freedom to choose and use products from different vendors and to prevent them from being locked in to a specific product and/or vendor. The published OpenDocument standard [6] from OASIS and ISO (ISO/IEC 26300) for office applications offers this. Currently, applications that support this open format include StarOffice, KOffice, IBM Works, AbiWord and Microsoft does not support this but instead it has come up with its own XML-based file formats for its office suite. Again, while the MS Office XML schemas are publicly published and licensed for use royalty-free, they are owned by a single vendor (Microsoft) and hence are subject to the potential abuse discussed previously for non-open formats. In an attempt to allay fears over this and acceding to the requests of some of its biggest customers, the Microsoft Office XML file formats have been submitted to European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) International for development as formal standard.

Internet Services and Applications


The Internet is perhaps the best showcase of how when technologies are implemented using mainly open standards, there is almost universal accessibility, acceptance and benefits. Most networking infrastructure of the Internet is implemented based on open standards drawn up by IETF. In addition, many services and applications running now as well as being planned for the future are being implemented following open standards and recommendations from several bodies notably, IETF, W3C and OASIS. As a result, today, it is possible for one to access major services offered on the Internet using a multitude of environments ranging from commodity PCs, hand-held Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile devices to proprietary set-top black boxes and TV sets. Without this adherence to open standards, the Internet would not be as ubiquitous as it is today.


  1. OASIS Standards, "OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0"
  2. The Unicode Standard
  3. David Adams, "Power Plays: The Phenomenon of Vendor Lock-in"
  4. Wikipedia (the free-content encyclopedia) entry on "Embrace, extend and extinguish",_extend_and_extinguish
  5. CNET News, "Microsoft FAT patent falls flat"
  6. OASIS Standards, "OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0"