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Open Source and Open Standards

Open Source and Open Standards

As the Linux and open source communities continue to expand, there's a lot of discussion happening around the ideas of open source and open standards.

It's not enough, people say, to just have the software code be open source - the standards themselves need to be open too. Otherwise, we run the risk of some large company locking everyone into their version of a standard.

For example, imagine what would happen, the reasoning goes, if some large company were to release a proprietary standard for interfacing with digital cameras. If the company were large enough and had enough market clout, they could force their "standard" on the rest of the world. If one company could control the standards, they could force all the other competitors in the market to conform to their way of doing things. This could slow down new innovations since competitors in the market couldn't come out with new features that didn't meet with the "standard" that had been forced on them.

The issue is much broader than just digital cameras. It has to do with programming languages, communications protocols, and even the file format for the document I'm writing at this moment. It also impacts anything having to do with the recording, distribution, and play back of music or movies. In short, it impacts virtually anything that people want to share with each other.

The number of people arguing for the idea of open source and open standards is growing. In fact, a group called the Open Standards Alliance recently held a conference on the topic. This conference was attended by a number of leaders from around the Linux and open source community and focused on how open standards and open source can complement each other. Their Web site (www.openstandardsalliance.org) has links to many of the presentations given at the conference.

However, open standards can come with their own set of problems. They only work if everyone plays along. For example, you may remember what happened several years ago when Microsoft ran into problems for shipping a version of Java with Windows that wasn't "fully compatible." Sun accused Microsoft of extending Java deliberately "to implement the Java technology in a manner calculated to cause software developers to create programs that will operate only on platforms that use defendant Microsoft's Win32-based operating systems and no other systems platform or browser."

In that case Sun was able to sue Microsoft to stop them from extending Java because Microsoft and Sun had signed a licensing agreement. But if Sun released Java as an open source application, they may not have the ability to stop them. In addition, Microsoft may have been able to distribute a noncompatible Java without having to pay Sun a dime for it if Java were open source.

In this case, would making Java an "Open Source/Open Standard" have helped Sun? Would it have helped the wider community of software users? It's not clear at first glance that it would have helped either.

Here's the paradox: giving up control of a standard - or making it an open standard - by any company can be risky and have unintended consequences. Sometimes it may even be in the best interests of a user community to keep a standard closed to prevent some particularly strong competitor from subverting it.

But in many cases, it's in the best interests of the user community to make standards open. Good examples of this are the communications standards that Internet protocols are based on. If some company were to get control of one of these standards (by patenting parts of it, for example), they could cause problems for anyone wanting to implement products or tools based on it.

Needless to say, most times it's in the best interests of the user community to have standards be open and free. When this is the case, innovation happens fastest and we all benefit.

More Stories By Kevin Bedell

Kevin Bedell, one of the founding editors of Linux.SYS-CON.com, writes and speaks frequently on Linux and open source. He is the director of consulting and training for Black Duck Software.

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