Open vs. Open
As a guy who’s been around the block more than once in the technology industry, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a plethora of developments, ideas and concepts, some good, some not so good. One particular debate, or perhaps, a point is confusion, is around the word ‘open’. In the early days of computing, groups of like minded individuals came together for the purpose of defining standard ways to ‘do things’. For the most part, these folks realized that it was generally better for the industry as well as the users of technology to establish standards so that systems AND people could work together. There is no doubt that many of these groups have changed the nature of computing and technology for the better. Email flows, the internet works, people can view documents, pictures, listen to music, etc.
So standards tend to come in two varieties, open and defacto. Open standards are designed and controlled usually by some form of governing body and made available to all interested parties and defacto standards are more typically owned and governed by a commercial organization and not necessarily released. Regardless of open or defacto, standards are useful to creating meaningful experiences and solutions. Ignoring defacto standards, what is interesting about open standards is they allow for organizations, commercial or otherwise, to develop applications and solutions that can work in a greater eco-system while allowing for innovations and creativity in the implementation of the standard. Thus, if your organization writes better code, faster code, has more bells and whistles, it has the opportunity to gain better adoption than competitors. Are you with me so far? Open standards are usually good. (While probably out of scope for this post, I would like to point out though, that open standards are not necessarily always the more efficient designs. They suffer from the same thing they benefit from, design by committee, which can sometimes limit innovation. Just food for thought…)
Ok, let’s fast forward a few years to discuss the next wave of ‘open’ from a technology perspective, open source. Undoubtedly, open source software has had yet another dramatic impact on technology. I would venture to say that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who uses the internet in any fashion who does not get benefit from the many efforts of the open source community. Web servers, email servers, browsers, and so many more applications and solutions are made freely available to the world to leverage and use. The nature of open source software is to be developed in the open, meaning, the actual source code is accessible to all who wish to see it or work on it. Before I get to far into this description, let me get back to the point of this post, it is to discuss the use of the word ‘open’.
I’ve introduced open standards and open source. They do share a couple common traits. They are freely available to all interested parties, they are generally developed and governed by committee and, as pointed out, they are both usually thought of as good. However, and this is a BIG however that many people seem to ignore, no where is there a rule that specifies open source and open standards are mutually exclusive! Of course, I will admit that where you find open source, you generally find open standards, but, think about how many commercially available products there are that are fully dependant on open standards that are not in anyway open source! I would also venture a guess that you may find open source software out there that is not dependant on open standards as well. Regardless, my point stands, while there may be some really good reasons to use open source and open standards in conjunction with each other, nothing says it HAS to be this way. So why do so many technologists lump open source and open standards together as if they are the same thing??
I think it is also a good idea to point out the that the goals of these two efforts, while sometimes complimentary, are not the same. Open standards are driving for interoperability between systems or applications, while, the goal of open source is to make high quality software available to the market free of charge. Hold these thoughts…..
One more fast forward, let’s add the third wave of open, that of open government. Open government carries with it the promise of dramatically altering the way citizens view and engage with government. There is the promise of unprecedented levels of transparency, participation and collaboration, driving accountability and effectiveness like never before. Like open source and open standards, there’s no doubt open government has the potential to be a good thing! Right? Are we still together on this?
Now back to word ‘open’. Just like there are people who make the mistake of lumping together open source and open standards as if they are the same, I’m now witnessing people adding open government to the ‘bundle’, making the assumption that for government to be open, it must rely solely on open source and open standards. Now really folks, I will not argue that the end goal of open government will not in many ways benefit from open standards and to some extent open source, but, are they really mutually exclusive? Are there no opportunities for innovative commercial products and services, defacto standards, and custom solutions in open government? Unlike open source and open standards, open government is about far more than technology or access to ‘raw’ data. In fact, to illustrate my point, doesn’t open government also need to take into consideration a few little non-technical details, such as new policies and behavioral changes??
I do understand the tendency to view the world through personal filters, where we assume everyone else has the same perspectives and needs, but, I think we need to question the idea that adding the word ‘open’ to something automatically associates it to all others things dubbed ‘open’. That approach can be quite limiting and short sighted. Rather, especially with regards to open government, let’s help our government leaders by keeping them focus on the desired outcomes, their intended audience and only then, allow the discussion of which technologies to bring to the party. Remember, open government should be about people, not technology.