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Why Openness Matters

Apart from the obvious transparency benefits, there are a lot of good reasons why openness matters. If you have Open Standards it makes it very difficult for any company to act in a monopolistic way about your data.

Some people don't even accept that stuff you enter into programs is your data, and believe that because you used their program to save the data in their file format, they own that data.

If a standard is truly open, you can use any program you like to access your data, or write one yourself. If someone has managed to sneak submarine patents into the standard, you end up with the Gif tax problem.

What happened with the Gif tax, was that the company managed to sneak patented technology into the standard, let everyone write software to display or edit Gif images, and then when it became embedded into the Internet they came looking for money with the intent of suing everyone who didn't pay up.

What happened next was that those who had no choice but to include the image display or manipulation abilities in their software had no choice but to pay up, and everyone else had to remove the technology from their software until the patents ran out.

The same thing also happened with mp3 software, with some video playback software, and with many other classes of software.

If the standard is less open, you end up with an even worse problem, because nobody knows how to implement the standard. Considering that in some places you must keep various documents for up to 7 years, this can be a total disaster.

An example of this is the 'doc' format and 'xls' formats used in Microsoft Office, which so far has had a problem that it is impossible to implement software to write new files in these formats without having a copy of Office sitting on the same machine. This problem is partly solved in a number of open source office suites, including open office.

A recent (2010/05) example occurred with the Aircraft Carrier the USS Nimitz. They found that the interpretation of the engineering drawings needed for servicing and upgrading the reactor were starting to look different. If the standard file format had been open, they could have produced their own file viewer for these drawings.

Even when a standard is completely open and has no other barriers to implementing it, it can still have undefined behaviours in it, which is why it it a good idea to include an Open Source program to provide a reference to look up how others have implemented that ambiguous behaviour, and then seek improvements in the standard so that the ambiguity is removed.

Another problem when standards are not open enough can be seen with various client/server protocols. The SMB protocol used by Microsoft for file sharing over a network was a previously open standard, but when Microsoft got too much of the market so that Microsoft clients were only really talking to Microsoft servers, they started adding proprietary extensions, and building in Microsoft assumptions for ambiguous behaviour, so Microsoft clients would only talk to Microsoft servers.

Over time, the open source Samba Project has provided an alternative implementation, exposing some of these dubious assumptions, and letting any Unix based server (including Mac OS X) provide either end of the protocol.

A lot of people are very concerned over a lot of these issues, and some of the have joined the Pirate Party, who have some good ideas for reforming the legislative framework around intellectual property.