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Open standards vs. open source: A basic explanation

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What are open standards, exactly? You’ve probably heard the term thrown around, but why does it matter to your business? How does it relate to open source? What’s the difference?

Take a common example. Have you ever noticed that Wi-Fi seems to work the same with any router, phone or computer? We tend to take these types of standards for granted, but they bring huge benefits to our daily lives.

Imagine if there were no standards like Wi-Fi. Every business might have its own form of wireless technology. If your favorite coffee shop had a router made by Company X, and you owned a computer made by Company Y, you might have to find another coffee shop to check your email.

Even if each business had a functioning form of wireless internet, a lack of standards would make interoperability nearly impossible. Customers of every company would suffer.

Have you ever wondered how competing businesses all across the world somehow converge on one format for these things?

The answer is often open standards.

What are open standards?

An open standard is a standard that is freely available for adoption, implementation and updates. A few famous examples of open standards are XML, SQL and HTML.

Businesses within an industry share open standards because this allows them to bring huge value to both themselves and to customers. Standards are often jointly managed by a foundation of stakeholders. There are typically rules about what kind of adjustments or updates users can make, to ensure that the standard maintains interoperability and quality.

What is open source?

What is open source, then? The term may sound similar to open standards; but, in reality, it is fundamentally different.

At its core, open source code is created to be freely available, and most licenses allow for the redistribution and modification of the code by anyone, anywhere, with attribution. In many cases the license further dictates that any updates from contributors will also become free and open to the community. This allows a decentralized community of developers to collaborate on a project and jointly benefit from the resulting software.

How open standards and open source help prevent vendor lock-in

Both open source and open standards can help protect clients from vendor lock-in, but they do it in different ways.

Let’s start with an example of an open standard. A business might buy a PDF reader and editor from a vendor. Over time, the team could create a huge number of PDF documents. Maybe these documents become a valuable asset for the company. Since the PDF format is an open standard, the business would have no problem switching from one PDF software to another. There is no concern that it would be unable to access its documents. Even if the PDF reader software isn’t open source, the PDF format is an open standard. Everyone uses this format.

Now, let’s instead take a look at the benefits of open source. Imagine that a business had spent millions of dollars writing internal software code for a proprietary operating system. That business would no longer have the option of changing vendors. It would be stuck with that operating system, unless it wanted to make a significant investment re-writing that code to run on a different system.

Open source software could have prevented that issue. Because open source software does not belong to any particular business, clients are not locked-in to any particular provider.

In both of these examples, the client would be able to avoid vendor lock-in. In one case this is because a piece of closed software followed a common open standard. In the other case, it is because the software itself belonged to an open source community.

While these are fundamentally different things, both help foster innovation while also providing more options to customers. Learn more about the power of open technology from IBM.

 

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