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Sunday, 09 November 2008 12:37

A pragmatic European approach to open standards (a must-read)

The European Journal of ePractice has just published a research report showing that the achievement of wide-scale implementation depends not only on the openness of the process, but also on the willingness to negotiate and achieve a compromise.

The report, published 31 October 2008, is titled The Momentum of Open Standards - a Pragmatic Approach to Software Interoperability and is available as a PDF download (13 pages).

The European Journal of ePractice is a peer-reviewed online publication on eTransformation, launched in November 2007. (Warning: there are more "e" words ahead!)

The Journal belongs to the community ('e' standing for electronic), is sponsored by the European Commission as part of its good practice exchange activity.

The publication is open access, free of charge to all readers and aims to promote the diffusion and exchange of good practice in three domains: eGovernment, eHealth and eInclusion.

The meaning of eGovernment and eHealth should be fairly obvious. The third domain, eInclusion, "aims to prevent social and economic exclusion, especially of already disadvantaged people, due to divergences in knowledge and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), notably Internet-allowed services. eInclusion also means tapping new 'digital opportunities' for the participation of less-favored people and areas."

The report starts out by acknowledging that standards have numerous benefits, including enabling innovation, preparing the ground for better products, spreading new technology, expanding market access, boosting transparency, avoiding lock-in, creating market stability, and ensuring efficiency and economic growth. The standards process balances change and continuity in the marketplace.

And according to Vint Cerf (2008), widely esteemed as the father of the Internet: “The Internet is fundamentally based on the existence of open, non-proprietary standards”.

It quickly moves on to the importance of interoperability, which is one of the main reasons for setting up open standards in the first place.


First and foremost, says the report, standards guarantee interoperability (Egyedi & Heijnen, 2005). As the European Interoperability Framework EIF 1.01 states:

“Interoperability means the ability of information and communication technology (ICT) systems and of the business processes they support to exchange data and to enable the sharing of information and knowledge.”

Interoperability is best guaranteed and facilitated by open standards. Open standards are developed in a transparent and collaborative process, are available for free or at a nominal cost and can be implemented royalty free – in particular regarding software interoperability standards – or at reasonable cost.

Furthermore, open standards have demonstrable impact on the software ecosystem. A recent empirical study of best practice in eGovernment mentions the use of open standards among its top seven recommendations for success.

"The full range of benefits specific to open standards includes, above all, network effects, protecting buyers and consumers, and enhancing fair competition. Network effects mean that the more users adopt a standard, the more efficient it becomes. Examples of network effects abound in the hardware area. We can think of telephones, fax machines or cell phones."

Many EU Member States have frameworks that recognize this challenge and some even have preference
mandates for open standards, which contribute to fair procurement, economic growth, and reduced vendor

Hence, say the report's authors, the task of this article is to describe the importance of open standards for software interoperability, and analyzing the evidence."

"Actually, it has been said that: “Policymakers need empirical validation that open standards are indeed beneficial. Without such evidence, it would be ill-advised to blindly put into place preferential policies that favor open standards.”

They continue: "We will describe the state-of-the-art on policies, practices and impacts. Our evidence base is derived from economic analysis, case studies, public policy, theory and industrial practice."


The report's authors go on to discuss the meaning of  the term open standards: "It goes beyond the traditional definitions of standards in so far as it looks at openness from two angles: (1) the standards development process and (2) the availability of the standard for implementation and use. Little controversy exists over the standards development aspect."

"Open standards are essential and healthy for the software ecosystem," they say. "Thus, the key questions in relation to openness and open standards are: (1) What are the requirements on open standards in specific domains or for certain purposes? (2) How can all of us contribute to getting along the path towards openness?"

They give examples of several well-Known open standards (some of which started off as proprietary product implementations.

They mention how PDF (Portable Document Format) began as a file format created by Adobe Systems in 1993 for document exchange, and that PDF is now an open standard (ISO 32000-1:2008).

 "Anyone may implement the standard and create applications that read and write PDF files. Adobe holds patents to PDF, but licenses them for royalty-free use in developing software complying with its PDF specification."

"The impact of the above is huge," they point out. "Most governments across the globe are actively using PDF documents in their workflow and for archiving. Now that PDF is a fully open standard, multiple vendors can support the format, and governments avoid lock-in."

Then they go on: "The Open Document Format (ODF) is suitable for office documents, including text documents, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents like drawings or presentations, but is not restricted to these kinds of documents."

"The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) developed this new open standard based upon the XML-based file format originally created by OASIS submitted ODF to the Joint Technical Committee (JTC-1) of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). In May 2006, it was approved unanimously as an ISO and IEC standard (ISO/IEC 26300:2006)."


"In the meantime, ODF has been successfully implemented by a number of vendors and application developers. Implementations include OpenOffice; Star Office; Google Docs & Spreadsheets; K-Office; Scribus; Abiword; ajaxWrite; Zoho Writer; Ichitaro; IBM Lotus/Domino; IBM Workplace; Mobile Office; Gnumeric; Neo Office; Hancom Office."

"In other words: all of these applications use the same standard, ODF; all of them produce files with the extension .odt for text documents, .ods for spreadsheets and .odp for presentations; and these files can be opened, read and edited by either application implementing the ODF standard. This is interoperability at its best."

"Consequently, customers freely choose the applications based on look and feel, functionality, cost, or other criteria, without worrying about purchasing a specific, single-vendor software in order to work with their documents."

"ODF is gaining momentum in the public sector in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and in a number of US states."

"In time, the format might enable a shift away from the current monopoly on the computer desktop. Government is an important customer and adopts open standards policies and practices for the same reasons as industry does: flexibility, choice and efficiency. ODF provides that choice and the public sector is better placed to benefit because of it."

High hopes, indeed! After all, we all know about Microsoft's strong position in the office document marketplace, and the wars over ODF versus Microsoft's OOXML (Open Office XML) proposal, which is now an Ecma standard.

They conclude: "Those who control a standard have market power. They set the digital rules of communication. To ensure competition in the software market, standards must be open and independent of suppliers. Open standards, such as ODF or PDF, have significant network effects. Governments will be the first to benefit, and Denmark and the Netherlands are already doing so. The move towards openness has only happened because enough key actors agreed this should happen, and the European public sector has led the way."

Because I was so struck by this excellent report, I have taken the liberty of quoting far more extensively than usual from it. I hope that I've whetted your appetite. There's a lot more of interest in it, so I strongly recommend that you download your own copy.

Here's the link again, for your convenience: The Momentum of Open Standards - a Pragmatic Approach to Software Interoperability

There are back issues of the European Journal of ePractice here.

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.

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