October 2006

The importance of (truly) Open Standards

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A standard truly becomes great when we stop thinking about it and take it for granted. When we wake up in the morning and drive to work, we don’t spend time wondering which side of the road we should drive on. Standards eliminate the friction from routine activities and enable us to focus on more important priorities in our life. When we surf the web, send e-mails to each other or drive a car, an enormous amount of open standards enable us to accomplish what we set out to achieve.

Open Standards defined

In the world of software ‘Open Standards’ is a term that is freely used but loosely defined. Many companies try to push proprietary standards as “open” stan-dards and try to convert the term into an oxymoron. The Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org) has proposed a draft definition aimed at keeping open standards truly open. The definition reads thus: “There should be no secrets. The standard must include all details necessary for interoperable implementation. There should be availability. The standard must be freely and publicly available (e.g., from a stable website) under royalty-free terms. All Patents essential to implementation of the standard must be licensed under royalty-free terms for unrestricted use, or be covered by a promise of non-assertion when practiced by open source software. There must not be any require-ment for execution of a license agreement, NDA, grant, click-through, or any other form of paperwork to deploy conforming implementations of the standard. There should be no OSR-Incompatible Depen-dencies. Implementation of the standard must not require any other technology that fails to meet the criteria of this requirement.”

Establishing a standard

Clear documentation is the basic starting point for establishing a standard. However, this is not enough that a standard be clearly documented to enable interoperable implementation.The standard must be clear of encumbrances like copyright, patents etc. that could prevent users from making full use of the standard. For example, when we buy a house, we seek a document from the builder or the seller, certifying that the property is free of all encumbrances and has a clear and marketable title and that the seller agrees to indemnify the buyer against any claims on the property being sold. No bank would sanction a home loan without such a document. In the world of software, the consequences of encumbrances can be enormous, as can be seen from the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) patent case.

JPEG, as most users of digital photographs know, is a popular format for saving photographic images that has been widely adopted by makers of digital cameras, camcorders, PDA, cellphones and other devices. In 2002, Forgent, a company that owned Patent No. 4,698,672 in the US, ambushed the industry by suing 31 major hardware and software vendors, including Dell and Apple Computers. The company alleged that these companies infringed on its claim to an algorithm used in the popular JPEG picture file format. It is reported that Forgent’s legal assault earned it US$105mn before it was brought to its heels by the Public Patent Foundation that challenged and overturned Forgent’s claims.

Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation who fought the JPEG patent case points out that every week 900 patents are issued and fifty-five patent lawsuits are filed. While it costs only 39 cents to send a postcard with a cease and desist notice to an alleged patent infringer, the defendant would have to spend US$40,000 to get a lawyer’s opinion and anywhere from US$2-4mn to defend a case.

The indiscriminate manner in which software patents are granted hang like the proverbial Damocles sword over open standards. Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and a great champion of open standards told Wired magazine in an interview on web services that, “My fear is that significant standards will be covered with patents, and if so it’ll just kill development. A lot of these [proposed] vendor patents are ridiculous, but the fear and uncertainty over them is there.”

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that Berners Lee leads says that, “In order for the Web to reach its full potential, the most fundamental Web technologies must be compatible with one another and allow any hardware and software used to access the Web to work together. W3C refers to this goal as “Web interoperability.” By publishing open (non-proprietary) standards for Web languages and protocols, W3C seeks to avoid market fragmentation and thus Web fragmentation.” Imagine where the web would be without open standards!”

Open standards are the foundation of our IT infrastructure and it is therefore important that these standards are truly open, free of encumbrances and freely available to all – now and well into the future.

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