The New York Times reports today a hard rebuke from European Union’s competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, against Microsoft’s tactics in Europe. In her speech she offered up some advice worth heeding; “I know a smart business decision when I see one — choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed,” Ms. Kroes told a conference in Brussels. “No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to choose a closed technology over an open one.” 
Certainly when using any software this matters, but let’s take a closer look at how this advice relates to open source. Evaluate the following statement for accuracy. True or False? “[Open Source] severely limits the possibility of proprietary “lock-in”–where users become hostage to the software vendors whose products they buy.” If you answered “true,” you’re not alone. This was published recently in the MIT Business Review and is a commonly held belief by computing professionals everywhere. In fact, it’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of open source technology. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding can prove costly and dangerous.
First let me be clear by stating that I am a sincere advocate for open source software. It is a superior development model which accelerates innovation, makes for superior peer reviewed code, increases competition and more. For some users having access to the source code of software allows them all the freedom they need. However, for many users the open source development process and its open code format do not guarantee the long term ability to easily or freely choose a technology solution. It’s only half the equation: If the cost of moving from one open source solution to another is prohibitive, you’re just as locked in to open source as a closed source solution. Only open source combined with open standards delivers freedom of choice. I would amend the E.U. commissioners statement to read, “choosing BOTH open source and open standards solutions is a very smart business decision indeed.”
Open standards are vitally important to ensure interoperability and reduce your risk as a technology user. A report titled “Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems” developed at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard law school suggests that corporations and government policies should “mandate technology choice, not software development models.”
The report defines open standards, which it distinguishes from open source, based on six elements including the nature of its control, evolution, and availability. While propriety software can exist within an open standards environment, the combination of open source and open standards delivers the best choice for freedom from vendor lock-in. In fact, I would argue that the OSS development model combined with a strong, clear, and timely standard produces an autocatalytic environment of broad choice and participation – both working together to make the other stronger. The report states it like this:
“Open standards and open source share common ground. Both result from a community oriented, collaborative process in which anyone can contribute and access the end product — either standard specifications or source code. There is a complementary relationship with the implementation of an open standard in open source, which promulgates adoption of that standard.”
The report recommends “mandating interoperability in procurement language, preferring open standards when applicable and adhering to the principles of openness whenever possible.” It also provides an example of how the government of Japan has developed software procurement guidelines that dictate that open standards and open document formats shall be given priority in government contracts.
Fortunately, there are many open standards implemented in leading open source products (Apache and HTTP for instance). For Linux users there is a widely supported open standard that forms the foundation of most Linux distributions. The Linux Standard Base  offers corporate IT a no-cost solution that delivers freedom of choice. So why exactly should you care about Linux standards?
Improved Interoperability. By following the LSB, distribution vendors and ISVs improve portability between applications and compliant operating systems. It also enables end users to choose the distribution that best meets their needs.
Reduced Risk. The more your organization deploys and supports open standards, the less dependent you are on any one vendor. The Linux Standard Base – or any open standard with similar support – is a simple and effective risk management strategy.
Improved Functionality and Choice. Open standards will make it easier for ISVs to port their software to the Linux operating system. This will increase the number and type of applications available for the platform.
So How Do You Take Advantage of Linux Open Standards?
For IT users of Linux, it’s very easy to support open standards for Linux or any other technology. You should simply mandate open standards-compliance into your procurement contracts with your software vendors and ISVs. Many organizations have already done this with the Linux Standard Base. By stipulating this compliance in your contracts, you’ll ensure a degree of portability unparalleled by Windows and other systems ; either closed or open (think OpenSolaris).
You can also join standards organizations such as the Linux Foundation, the Open Group or OASIS and give your feedback directly to consortia members. This will enhance existing standards and make sure your concerns are addressed in the future. Furthermore, for any custom development your organization does, you should follow leading standards and best-practices to reduce your support and training costs and guarantee you can deploy your application on the platform of your choice.
Developing standards hand in hand in the wild and woolly world of open source is no easy task. The LSB project continues to develop and has not even come close to its full potential. However, I hope it’s clear how important open standards are to the success of your Linux strategy. Without them, as Commissioner Kroes points out, you – and your organization – may be in for a costly awakening.