What’s up with Open Standards?

It has been a while since I have discussed open standards here, even though I have alluded to them in passing. There are currently a number of initiatives and policies ongoing at the European level that are bringing this topic back on the table, especially with regard to public procurement practices. Why does it matter? Because it shows that beyond any kind of advantage, convenience, or the mere ability to have a real choice of IT solutions suppliers, open standards are considered by much of the private and public sectors as some sort of nuisance.

Depending on how you see it, the “battle” for open standards is either won, or it is  still ongoing at the normative level (think about the DRM injection in HTML5 that happened at the W3C). Open Standards, more than ever before, rule the IT industry and the Internet. Cloud technologies rely on open standards to a large extent; purchasing music tracks online lets you increasingly download open file formats that, while they may not be exactly standardized themselves, have open specifications and are unencumbered wiith digital restrictions management (yes, that’s how DRM should really be called).ODF-logo

On the other hand, desktop technologies are still a major issue. One could assume it is because of the stranghold of an entrenched  monopoly, and perhaps it is, to some extent. We are in 2014 however, and both open standards and FOSS desktop offerings (LibreOffice, Firefox, Linux  distributions for the desktop) are legion. These have a real uptake among what is  often referred to as the consumers’ market and that’s great news, but when it comes to what’s going on in the workplace, there seems to be little choice aside the MS Office + Outlook + SharePoint on Windows stack. Why  is that the case? Why is the European Commission still trying to tackle the problem in 2014?

The Desktop is traumatizing

And more exactly, change is traumatizing. Technology changes very quickly, but the more structured the workplace you have, the less adaptative it will be for IT  solutions. If you add the specific culture of the organization that can sometimes be more or less rigid and centered on one vertical industry, you will find long cycles of deployment for any kind of IT technologies and a reluctance to “switch” to a new brand or a new kind of software. This could not be more true on the desktop. I’ve been writing this for years here, but there are reasons for that: the desktop is used by pretty much everyone in the organization. While it  is  somewhat changing with the arrival of tablets and smartphones, desktops are here to stay. The problem is that desktops are very complex systems -offering a graphical interface and tools for pretty much every kind of uses and situations one can imagine- and as such come with more quirks than other devices and other software platforms. These quirks end up being noticed by the users, who most of the time are not computer-savy and will be reluctant to change. Worse,  their  skills will directly or indirectly be challenged by the change. This fear of change ends up being passed on to the CIO level, who has to make the purchase decision, and does not want to be hold liable for having chosen that “weird, so called innovative solution no one gets”.

Just like with any fear, we are not talking about rationality. In 2014, people who use Twitter on a daily basis will shout if their desktop has changed overnight. It is not a good practice to do that kind of brutal change anyway, but the very concept of microblogging was unknown to them 5 years ago. They embraced it with no trouble at all. Their desktop, however, is a holy land, the solitaire game and their office suite their hallowed relics.

Open Standards can sometimes be hard to understand

It is hard enough for people to understand what protocols such as TCP/IP do. These open standards however are invisible to most of them, even if they’re using them on a daily basis. Other open standards, such as OpenDocument Format, are probably not conceivable by some people, who think that an office document is “an extension of Microsoft Office”. I have even heard of teachers, here in France, who refused to even mention ODF because such a thing “could not possibly exist”. The conceptual distinction between a file and an application has not permeated much, even in the twenty first century.

Yet, open standards are the way to go. They may not always be the superior technology, but they offer a level playing field for the industry to build on and innovate with. The Internet has been built on this, so does cloud computing. Desktop solutions are no different. Using open standards brings you back in control of your suppliers and IT infrastructure; it ultimately helps reducing costs and keep your data safe, reusable and sustainable  for dozens of year to come. You can read more about it in the excellent article by Bjorn Lundell published here. Ultimately, the lock-in of the desktop solutions will stop being meaningful as the state of the art will change so much the solutions that are seen as essential today will stop being that important. But the documents, the images, the data, all your content will still be locked in undocumented file formats that need to be reverse-engineered in order to edit them. No one should build such a silo for the future and then throw away the key. That’s what has been happening for more than a decade on the desktop, unfortunately. Where does that lead  us? I think we can already see where: vendor lock-in is here to stay on a more or less large extent; but so are open standards. There will then be people who are stuck with their vendors and constantly handle the legacy; there will be the others, who actually enable information technologies to help them innovate. For them, the story has only started.

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