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 such that anyone may read, write or update data using tools that suit their needs at the time. Open Standards are generally determined and agreed upon as a result of free and open discussions between all interested parties. 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 independant 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 open source - imagine if Aristotle or Plato or Newton had only published thier 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.
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 inovation. Newton acknowledged that his successes were only possible because of the work of others before him.
Why they matter especially to us
The ultimate goal of the Open Source movement is to provide everyone with free (in all the various senses of that word) access to information technology. Data is as much a part of this as software, 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 Open Source software projects that specialise in data creation or access - especially the OpenOffice office suite, and the Mozilla/FireFox browser - which both take standards very seriously, not least of all because 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:
- The World Wide Web Consortium (w3c) who are responsible for the standards of the web (like HTML or CSS, or the XML data-interchange formats)
- The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) who standardise many important internet communication protocols and services
- The Internation Standards Organisation (ISO) who standardise many business and industrial processes.
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
What can you do to standardise
Very simply, do not use closed or proprietary formats no matter how prevalent they 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.