Monday, February 25, 2008

Market forces .... part IV ..... Open Source vs Open Standards

Which one is more important open source or open standards? According to Opera Software's CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner it's open standards. A lot of people seem to agree:

"open standards ARE more important than the licensing of an individual piece of software. Who cares what license the software someone uses is, as long as its always possible to replace it, and freely compete, which a free and open standard ensures."

I disagree and I'm starting to feel like a lone voice here, maybe I'm wrong? Well let's go through my reasoning. I happen to agree with Bob Suter that "the easy availability of software can accelerate the adoption of a standard" and that adoption makes something a standard or not. For me, the fastest way of achieving such adoption is through providing an operational means of implementing an open standard - which means open source. So in my view, if you want portability you will need BOTH open standards AND open source. BOTH are important.

Now there are many definitions for what an "open standard" is. I'll just note the OSI's comment that:"We don't try to define it ourselves, but we know that if you can't implement an Open Standard under an Open Source License, it's not open enough for us."

That's a curious statement? Are they concerned that some standards could be touted as open but could actually contain design flaws to create an advantage for some company? Of course they are. There are lots of evil strategies for subverting standards, even open standards, to your advantage. But then this is what the debate is really all about .... advantage.

There are two main areas for competitive advantage in the software business - the product I sell or the service I provide. For example:

  1. If I believe my competitive advantages are in the product, then the last thing I want is a level playing field in terms of technology. I'm certainly happy for consumers to be able to easily move to my product, but I want my product to have advantages over others. Open standards is desirable, open source is not.

  2. If I believe my competitive advantages are in the service provided then having a level playing field in terms of the technology offered, benefits me. It enables me to differentiate my company against all others on service quality alone. I certainly want consumers to be able to move to my service but I don't want a competitor to have some technological feature which I can't offer. Both open standards and open source are desirable.

Now a service industry requires a commonly used and well defined activity. Many of the once novel and new software systems that we use, are rapidly becoming well defined and common. Even standards for service delivery are more widespread (whether ITIL or ISO2000) and we have an emerging Software as a Service industry. The biggest obstacles faced by this industry are adoption fears, which can be reduced by encouraging portability between service providers.

As this trend continues, we will move further along the path of service delivery for much of IT. Service will become the key competitive ground. For many IT sectors the differentiator will become "how" (the service) IT is delivered rather than "what"(the product). For those in the business of utility computing provision, operations will be a source of competitive advantage. For the rest of us, such competition will keep quality and prices keen on a commodity-like and cost of doing business activity.

Whist such a change will benefit consumers, it is a complete nightmare for those who see their product as their source of competitive advantage. I'll use this reasoning to respond to the original comment that I included:

"open standards ARE more important than the [open source] licensing of an individual piece of software" - yes, to a manufacturer of a proprietary product.

"as long as its always possible to replace it, and freely compete, which a free and open standard ensures" - Open standards don't do that. You can use dependencies, secrets, meta data lock-in and limitations of function to subvert this.

"who cares what license the software someone uses" - I do, I'm a consumer of software services and I want a competitive service based industry.

In my view if you want portability you will need BOTH open standards AND open source. BOTH are important. What seems to be happening feels more like a marketing campaign to describe products as "open" to the enterprise and to undermine "open source".

"Caveat Emptor", you're being sold short.

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