Jul 122007

Rick Jelliffe, who’s been in the middle of lots of standards efforts, writes on the subject at Is our idea of “Open Standards” good enough? Verifiable vendor-neutrality. Worth reading, although he does make the assumption that the term “open standards” means “created by some standards organization”. Although that’s a tempting definition, and the one used by a lot of people (and the one I happen to prefer), it’s not the only definition that I’ve seen. I’ve seen three main categories of definitions of the term “open standard” when applied to some specification:

  • Anyone can read the specification (usually without paying); often applied to proprietary specifications which are treated as de facto standards.
  • Created in a standards organization that allows anyone to take part who has relevant expertise or can pay the appropriate dues.
  • Able to be used in any open source projects (i.e., there are restrictions on the types of licenses that can be used).

Recognising that lots of people use the term “open standard” to mean different things, the Liberty Alliance recently published what that term means in the context of Liberty Alliance specifications and guidelines. It’s called the Liberty Alliance Commitment to Open Standards and it’s a very brief document outlining a set of conditions for those specifications and guidelines (yes, the document talks about technical specifications but really it applies to other types of documents as well). The top item in the list of conditions to be an open standard, to answer Rick’s main point that rather than talking “open standards” we need to be talking as much of “verifiable vendor-neutrality”, is cannot be controlled by any single person or entity with any vested interests.

I disagree with Rick when he says that only ISO is truly vendor-neutral since only national bodies vote, as those national bodies could in theory be swayed by vendors. What you really want is to balance the needs of all parties (vendors, users, governments), but that’s difficult to attain in any organization. You need not only an organization that is set up to allow for input from all those stakeholders (to produce standards that are evolved and managed in a transparent process open to all interested parties and approved through due process by rough consensus among participants) but you also need to have enough participants who are interested in the end result, and have the appropriate expertise. And you need a competent chair for each committee, of course.

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