Lodahl's blog: Why is open standards so important ?

29 June 2007

Why is open standards so important ?

I actually wanted to write a series of small essays called "How do you explain open standards to your mother-in-law". It should be several small stories about how I would explain open standard to different people. You know, my mother-in-law, my local bank clerk and so on and so forth. But I'll let that be up to others. Feel free to post comments here.

The Danish Parliament decided i 2006 that the public sector should use open standard for document exchange. Just before summer 2007, they decided a plan for implementation of open standards. The plans gives the individual authority the choice between the open format ODF and Microsofts EOOXML when sending documents. As a consequence all authorities must be able to read both ODF and EOOXML.

Why is open standards so important ?

About standards...
It's a good idea to use standards on curtain areas, because this assures that it's possible to talk to each other. Isolated, it might be cheaper for each authority to buy non-standard software, because the purchase price is lower. But it will be very difficult (=expensive) to work together with other authorities. Bu agreeing on a common format, we will be able to work together without any problems.

Example 1:
Imagine that each local city had their own way of creating social security numbers, Most people in Denmark know how the social security number is made and how it works, but what i there where 98 different ways of doing it ? Exchanging data between authorities would become very difficult and expensive and I dare not to think about moving to another city.

Example 2:
For little more that a hundred years ago, the Danish railroad to develop. For many years the national railroad company took care about the major parts of the railroad, and smaller local companies handled the local routes. When the local rail companies needed to buy new equipment, they would often buy the cheapest they could get. After a few years there where several different track widths in use. As long as the trains only needed to serve on their own tracks, there where no problems. But it wasn't possible to use each others equipment and it was difficult to transport equipment from one place to another. It wasn't possible to use through-going lines, so passengers always needed to change train under way.

Example 3:
In Denmark we use 230 volts in the electrical plugs. Imagine that in some cities they use 230 volts,, and in other cities thats 110 volts. And of cause the size of the plugs (format) will be different too. We would all need to take adapters (converters) in the bag when we were traveling.

Why does it need to be open ?

For many years we have been using something called a de-facto standard.for editable document; Microsoft Office format. This is giving Microsoft an advantage in competition, because that format is maintained by Microsoft alone. Decisions about improvements is taken based on Microsoft (economical) needs, and not based on whats best. It's also important, that Microsoft has the opportunity to misuse the position to kill their competitors. This can happen by implementing extra complicated details in the format, that makes it absolutely impossible
for others to find out how it works. This way, the products from Microsoft will appear as better than competing products.

Thats why standards must be open. Everybody must have access to the complete specification and have the right to use the details. Everybody should be able to get involved in developing the standard. The standard should not be depending on a single vendors special needs.

Example 4:
Earlier here were only one supplier of telecom services. Later, when there was more telecom companies comming to Denmark, The National Telecom company still had responsibility to maintain the infrastructure. The National Telecom misused their position as the 'owner' of the
infrastructure. One example is, that when somebody bought a DSL connection from another vendor, the National company would make about to or three weeks before they could establish the connection. But if the customer bought the same product directly from the company, they could establish the connection within a few days.

Example 5:
See example 3 above.
Imagine that we agreed on a standard for electrical plugs. But the standard was developed by one company and it's only that company that knows all the details about the new plug standard. The company has developed some very special and complicated details in the standard which makes it very difficult to install any electrical devices, without consulting the specification. This makes it completely impossible for other contractors to do any electrical work without braking the law. Where do you think customers will go to get a contractor ? How do you think the chances is for other electrical contractors to get any work ?

One standard is enough - two standards is one too many

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