What are Open Standards?

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With the rise of the internet it has becoming ever more important that digital data can be exchanged freely among people, no matter where they are, how much money they have or what language they speak. While this sounds like a natural idea, it is far from widely accepted among proprietary software developers, many of whom seek to control their consumers through vendor lock in, i.e. the process of using restricted, undocumented or patented data formats to ensure that users find it very difficult to switch to alternative applications or systems.

Open Standards are designed to describe data formats so that anyone may read, write or update data using tools implementing those standards that suit their needs at the time. Open Standards generally result from free and open discussions between a consortium of interested parties, often called "work groups" who hammer out the requirements of different stakeholders (software vendors, companies, organisations, governments, etc.) who want to use the data governed by the standards. Once defined, Open Standards may be implemented by anyone who wishes to write an application to access the data. The management of on Open Standard is usually performed by an independent body that is not controlled by any one vendor organisation although there is nothing stopping a vendor from participating in the standards definition process if they wish. In fact vendor participation in the an Open Standard is encouraged as a means to widen the acceptance of the standard.

Why Open Standards matter

Data is only useful if people have access to it. In many ways this is the central idea of free and open source software - imagine if Aristotle or Plato or Newton had only published their works using a proprietary language that only they knew, that was not documented anywhere, and was bound-up in legal restrictions that made copying it very difficult technically, and legally impossible. In fact, perhaps people as brilliant as those great thinkers did do exactly that... and now their brilliance has been completely forgotten and lost to humanity.

Describing data or services in an open, standardised way allows full participation by anyone with an interest in that data or service. This allows communities, businesses and general users to collaborate in a seamless and effective manner without restrictions imposed by any one person or organisation. Throughout history sharing and collaboration has lead to progress and innovation. Newton acknowledged that many of his successes were only possible because he was able to build on the work of others before him - which they made available to posterity - rather than having to start from scratch.

Why they matter especially to us

The ultimate goal of the free and open source software movement is to provide everyone with free (in all the senses of that word) access to information technology. Data is as much a part of this as software (a hammer is only a useful tool if you also have nails and wood with which to build things), so it is vital that wherever possible data is stored in well-documented standardised data formats. This makes it simple for any competent software developer (whether they are developing open or closed source software) to access this data.

We feel very strongly that barriers that restrict people's access to information - whether they be legal, technical, political or economic - are counter-productive. This is especially so when the barriers are in place simply to generate revenue or income for only one or two vendors.

Open Standards are particularly important to free and open source software projects that specialise in data creation or access - especially major applications like the LibreOffice office suite and the Mozilla FireFox browser - which both take standards very seriously, not least of all because some competing products in these fields are famous for the contempt with which they often treat standards.

Who standardises the standards

Various international bodies take it on themselves to define "standards" - well known among them are:

And because standards are so important, many smaller groups manage standards for specific areas. Some examples of this are:

  • The Free Standards Group who develop and maintain standards for Open Source software such as the Linux Standard Base and the Accessability workgroup
  • The X.org Foundation who maintain the X windows standard
  • OASIS who, amongst other things, maintain the OpenDocument format that is used in OpenOffice/LibreOffice

What can you do to standardise

You vote with your money and your participation. Simply do not use closed or proprietary formats which disrespect your freedom as a user, no matter how prevalent those formats are.

Don't do this just for us though, although you will be doing us and the world a favour. Using open data formats will help you most of all simply accessing your own data. By using an open standard data format you may be assured that even in ten years time you will still be able to read, write and update your own documents.

A few simple pointers to start with:

  • Do not post data online, or ship it around in closed or proprietary document formats. Not everyone in the world can afford the proprietary applications required to read those formats. Open formats like HTML, PDF, JPEG or XML are the appropriate formats for transmitting digital content on the web - anyone can open them, no matter what software they use. This has the added benefit of helping to reduce level of software piracy that the major software vendors worry so much about.
  • When storing data for posterity remember that in the year 2050 it may be difficult to get a copy of the application used to create the data. Using an open standard ensures that any compliant application will be able to access the data. Consider how well software supports open standards before entrusting it with your data.