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Open source versus open standards

Sun's software czar Jonathan Schwartz writes that the terms are not interchangeable, a point that often gets overlooked. He explains why it pays to read more closely.

The term "open" has been used and abused by the purveyors of technology for a couple of decades now, so it should come as no surprise that technology users are taking their turn. Today, the term has become associated with software source code, industry standards, developer communities and a variety of licensing models--four distinct phenomena that are often intermingled in indistinct ways.

Each of these phenomena has a role to play, but it's important to understand what each one is--and isn't. Of the four, open standards are the most critical, because making a choice today shouldn't preclude you from making a different choice tomorrow.

That's what open standards are all about. They're documents that outline agreed-upon conventions to enable different programs to work together, along with some means to ensure that they actually do--a process or set of tests. With open standards, your company can pick and choose among competing vendors and not be locked in to any one of them.

Many people seem to think that open-source software offers the same advantages. Not necessarily.

Open source simply means that the underlying software code is available for inspection and modification. Perhaps the most famous example is the Linux kernel, but there are many others: the Apache Web server, the Gnome windowing environment, the Mozilla browser, the Grid Engine resource management, and, to name just a few. In fact, the open-source phenomenon goes back more than 20 years to Unix and the BSD license originated by Bill Joy.

The best open-source projects are the ones that actually amplify a standard, increasing its acceptance in the marketplace and enhancing

Many people seem to think that open-source software offers the same advantages as open standards. Not necessarily.
cross-platform compatibility. Which is why the company I work for, Sun Microsystems, has contributed more than 8 million lines of code to various projects, including those named above.

The thing to remember is that licensing terms vary. If you're a CIO, you'll want to make sure you understand how each kind of open-source license works--GPL, Lesser GPL, Apache, Mozilla, BSD, modified BSD-- so you can determine whether it's right for the job at hand.

If you're in a brokerage, for example, and want to combine a chunk of open-source code with your own home-grown trading application, you can do that--but you may then be required to publish the code for your application and make it freely available. Or you may simply need to meet certain compatibility requirements. It all depends on the license. Sun, for example, licenses software in a variety of ways and believes that each type of license is valid in the proper context.

The most important thing about both open standards and open source is whether there's an open community behind it. What's the process? Can anyone join--competitors, customers, students? After all, innovations can come from anywhere--and frequently do.

I think open-source software owes a great deal of its popularity to that inclusive process and the richness it tends to bring to the technology.

The thing to remember is that licensing terms vary.
The fact that you can download it free doesn't hurt either. But the process also presents challenges.

You can have people and companies contributing code, but that code doesn't necessarily become part of the mainstream. It may simply end up in the individual company's products. Making the source code open and available is good, but it doesn't necessarily mean that everything the community produces will be compatible.

Again, that's why standards are the most important factor. They give the CIO something to test against, to ensure compatibility and choice.

The key, after all, is to keep your options open.