Frequent thinker, occasional writer, constant smart-arse

Tag: open standards

Why open wins

Open standards matter, but so does the water; and just like water is not what creates a Mona Lisa or a Hoover Dam alone, so too do open standards not really matter that much to what we are trying to do with the DataPortability Project in the longer term. But they matter for the industry, which is why we advocate for them. Here’s why.

Hoover dam

Bill Washburn is one of the soft-spoken individuals that has driven a lot of change, like leading the charge to open government technology (the Internet as we know it) to the rest of the world. He’s been around long enough to see trends, so I asked him: why does open always win? What is it about the walled garden that makes it only temporary?

Bill gave me two reasons: technologies need to be easy to implement and they also need to be cheap. It may sound obvious, but below I offer my interpretation why in the context of standards

1) Easy to implement
If you are a developer constantly implementing a standard, you want the easiest one to implement. Having to learn a new standard each time you need to do something is a burden – you want to learn how to do something once and that’s it. And if there is a choice to implement two standards that do the same thing, guess which one will win?

That’s why you will see the technically inferior RSS dominate over ATOM. Both allow syndication and give the end-user the same experience, but for a developer trying to parse it, ATOM is an absolute pain in the buttocks. Compare also JSON and XML – the former being a data structure that’s not even really a standard, and the latter which is one of the older data format standards on Internet. JSON wins out for using asynchronous technologies in the web2.0 world, because it’s just easier to do. Grassroots driven micro-formats and W3C endorsed RDF? Same deal. RDF academically is brilliant – but academic isn’t real world.

2) Cheap to implement
This is fairly obvious – imagine if you had two ways of performing something that did the same thing, but one was free and the other had licensing costs – what do you think a developer or company will use? Companies don’t want to pay licensing fees, especially for non-core activities; and developers can’t afford license fees for a new technology. Entities will bias their choices to the cheaper of the two, like free.

I think an interesting observation can be made about developer communities. Look at people that are the .Net community, compared to say something like Python advocates. You tend to find Python people are more open to collaboration, meetups, and other idea exchanges rather than the .Net developers who keep to themselves (a proprietary language). With the Microsoft owned .Net suite requiring a lot more costs to implement, it actually holds back the adoption of the technology to dominate the market. If people aren’t collaborating as much when compared to rival technologies, that means less innovation, more costs to learning – a longer term barrier to market adoption.

The most important point to make is on the actual companies that push these standards. Let’s say you are Facebook pushing your own standard, which although free, could only be modified by and adapted by the Facebook team. That’s going to cost resources – at the very least, a developer overseeing it. Maybe a team of evangelists to promote your way of thinking; a supervisor to manage this team. If you are the sole organisation in charge of something, it’s going to cost you (not anyone else) a lot of money.

Bridge being built on the Hoover dam

Compare that to an open community effort, where lots of companies and people pool their resources. Instead of one entity bearing the cost, it’s hundreds of entities bearing the cost. On a singular basis, it’s actually cheaper to create a community driven standard. And honestly, when you think about it, why a company fights over what standard gets implemented has nothing to do with their core strategic objectives. Sure they might get some marketing out of it (as the Wikipedia page says “this company created this standard”), but realistically, it’s rewarding more the individuals within these companies who can now put on their resume “I created this technology that everyone is using now”.

Why Open wins
In the short run, open doesn’t win because it’s a longer process, that in part relies on an industry reacting to a proprietary approach. In the long run, Internet history has proven that the above two factors always come to dominate. Why? Because infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, and usually, it’s better to pool our efforts to build that infrastructure. You don’t want to spend your money on something that’s for the public benefit, only to have no one in the public using it – do you, Mr Corporate Vice-President?

So open it’s closed

The DataPortability Project has successfully promoted in 2008 the concept of “data portability”. However it’s become too successful – people make announcements now that claim to be “data portability” but are misleadingly not. Further, the term “Open” has become the new black. But really, when people say they are open – are they?

Status update on the DataPortability Project & context
The DataPortability Project now has developed a strong underlying transparent governance model to make decisions which embeds a process to achieve outcomes. We have also formulated our vision that forms the core DNA of the Project and allow us to align our efforts. Organisationally, we are currently working on a legal entity to protect our online community, and we are doing this whilst also ensuring we are working with others in the industry, such as the discussions we’ve had within the IDTBD proposal with Liberty Alliance, Identity Commons and others.

Our brand communications are nearly finalised (this time, legally vetted), and a refreshed website with a new blog has been rolled out. We’ve put out calls for positions and have already finalised our agreement with a new community manager. (Now open are positions for our analyst roles if you are interested.)

We have a Health Care task force that’s just started, looking to broaden our work into another sector of the economy. We also have an Service Provider Grid Task force finalising its work, which via an online interface and API, will allow people to query what various entities use in terms of open standards. We also have a task force that will provide sample EULA and TOS documents that encourage data portability, and further our vision.

The DataPortability vision states that people should be able to reuse their data. Traditionally in the past, people have said this means “physically” porting their data amongst web services. Whilst this applies in some cases, it is also about access as I recently argued .

So to synchronise our work on the EULA/ToS task force, I believe we need a technology equivalent, and which will give additional value to our Service Provider Grid. This is because Open Standards comply with our vision, and we need to ensure we only support efforts that we believe are worthy.

Hi, I’m open
Open Standards have been a core value that the DataPortability Project has advocated for since its founding, getting to the point where its even been confused as its core mission (it’s not). For us, they are an enabler Рand it has always been in our interest to see all of them work together.

Standards are important because they allow interoperability. For people to be able to access their data from multiple systems, we require systems to be able to easily communicate with each other. Likewise, for people to get value of any data they export from a system, they need to be able to import it – and this can only occur if the data is structured in a way that is compatible with another system.

We advocate “Open” because we want to minimise the costs of business for wanting to comply with our vision. However during 2008, the term "Open" Standards has been over-used, to the point of abuse.

An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and has various rights of use associated with it. But really, what’s open?
– its availability?
– the authority controlling the standard?
– the decision making process over the standard?

Liberty Alliance defines it as:

– The costs for the use of the standard are low.
– The standard has been published.
– The standard is adopted on the basis of an open decision-making procedure.
– The intellectual property rights to the standard are vested in a not-for-profit organisation, which operates a completely free access policy.
– There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.

That I believe, perfectly encapsulates what I think an Open Standard should be. However as someone who spends his days applying international accounting standards to what companies report in their financials, I can assure you, simply flagging the criteria is only half the fun. Interpreting them is a whole debate in itself.

In my eye, most of these "open" efforts don’t fit that criteria. To illustrate, I am going to shame myself as I am a member of a workgroup that claims to be open: the APML workgroup. The group fails the open test because:
– it has a closed workgroup that makes the decisions, without a clearly defined decision making procedure
– it does not have a non-profit behind it, with the copyright owned by a company (although it’s made clear there is no intention to issue patents)
– it has no clear rights attached to it

So does that mean every standard group needs to create a legal entity for it to be open? Thankfully no – the Open Web Foundation (OWF) will solve this problem. Or does it? Whilst the decision making process is "open" (you can read the mailing list where the discussion occurs), what about the way it selects members? It’s dependent on being invited. That’s Open with a big But.

How about OpenID (which I am also a member of) – that poster child for "Open Standards". On the face of it, it fits the bill. But did you know OpenID contains other standards as part of it? As my friend and intellectual mentor Steve Greenberg said:

openid xrds greenberg

Now thankfully, XRDS fits the bill as a safe standard. Well kind of. It has links to another standard XRI, which it is alleged are subject to patent claims. Well sort of. Kinda. Oh God, let’s not get into a discussion about this again. But don’t give poor APML, the OWF or Open ID too much grief – I could indeed raise some nastier questions especially at other groups. However this isn’t about shaming – rather, it’s about raising questions.

The standards communities are fraught with politics, they are murky, and now they are creeping into the infrastructure of our online world. As a proponent for these "Open Standards", I think it’s time we start looking at them with a more critical eye. Yes, I recognise all these questions I’m raising are fixable, but that’s why I want to raise the point, because they are currently being swept under the carpet outside of the traditional authorities like the W3C.

It’s time some boundaries were set on what is effectively the brand of Open. It’s also time the term is defined, because quite frankly, its lost all meaning now. I’ve listed some criteria – but what we really need is some consensus on what ‘the’ criteria for Open should be.