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UKOLN Briefing Paper

Selection and Use of Open Standards

Open standards can provide many benefits including platform independence and interoperability.
But although many successful services have used open standards there are also times when open
standards fail to to live up to their expectations. This briefing document summarises the potential
benefits of open standards but provides examples of possible limitations. A contextual approach to
assist the selection of open standards is described which aims to minimise the risks that open
standards which subsequently fail to provide the expected benefits are used.


The use of open standards aims to maximise the benefits of
If an open standard is defined as its ownership and
the investment in development activities. Open standards can
governance then there will be a need to be able to identify key
help to achieve this by providing:
standards-making organisations. Examples of recognised
Application-independence: So that resource can be open standards bodies include W3C (responsible for the
processed by a wide range of applications and aren‟t development of Web standards); IETF (responsible for the
locked in to a particular vendor. development of Internet standards); ISO (an international-
Device-independence: So that services can be accessed standard-setting body composed of representatives from
on a variety of devices, including various desktop various national standards bodies) and ECMA (responsible
computer environments, mobile devices, etc. for standardisation of Information and Communication
Technology Systems such as JavaScript).
Architectural integrity: The development processes for
production of open standards aims to ensure that systems
can be integrated with other new areas of development. OTHER TYPES OF STANDARDS
Long-tem access: Application and device-independence The term proprietary refers to formats which are owned by an
can help ensure that services can be accessed in the future, organisation, group, etc. Since this term has negative
when existing applications may no longer be available. connotations, the term industry standard is often used to refer
to a widely used proprietary standard. For example, the
Wide accessibility: Application and device-independence
proprietary Microsoft Excel format is sometimes referred to
can help ensure that services can be accessed by people
as an industry standard for spreadsheets. To make matters
with disabilities using a variety of assistive technologies.
even more confusing, the prefix is sometime omitted and MS
In brief open standards can provide a level playing field in Excel can be referred to as a standard.
which multiple providers can develop a diversity of services
To further confuse matters, companies which own proprietary
which can stimulate competition and drive down prices,
formats may choose to make the specification freely
provide richer functionality and enhanced usability.
available. Alternatively third parties may reverse engineer the
Note that CETIS have published a briefing paper on specification and publish the specification. In addition tools
“Assessing the Business Case for Standards, an introduction which can view or create proprietary formats may be
for strategy and resourcing committees” [1] which provides available on multiple platforms or as open source.
further examples of the benefits of open standards.
In all these cases, although there may appear to be no obvious
barriers to use of the proprietary format, such formats should
WHAT ARE OPEN STANDARDS? not be classed as open standards as they have not been
The benefits which open standards aim to provide can be approved by a neutral standards body. The organisation
summarised by the statement “Open standards provide owning the format may chose to change the format or the
interoperability”. But what, exactly, is an open standard? usage conditions at any time. File formats in this category
Perhaps surprisingly it seems that the term "open standards" is have traditionally included Microsoft Office formats, Adobe's
somewhat ambiguous and open to different interpretations. PDF, Macromedia Flash and Java.
Open standards can mean:
A standards-making process open for anyone to COMPLEXITIES OF OPEN STANDARDS
participate in. Despite the widespread acceptance of the importance of open
Documentation on the standards is available for free or at standards and the feeling among some that use of open
a reasonable cost. standards should be mandatory in the development of
Use of the standards is unencumbered by licensing or networked services in practice organisations may not
patenting issues. implement open standards due to several factors:
The standards are ratified by recognised standards body.

Failure in the Market Place: Open standards may not These examples illustrate the dangers, which may include cost
succeed in gaining acceptance in the market place if they implications in addition to user dissatisfaction, which an
do not align with major vendors' business models or uncritical adoption of open standards may lead to.
interests. In such cases, real or perceived flaws such as
over complexity and the need to change user habits A SPECTRUM OF OPENNESS
override the advantages of open standards and existing
closed solutions are used instead. Conversely, if there is In addition to the experiences of when the success of
strong alignment of an open standard to vendors' interests, acknowledged open standards is questionable there is also a
problems in the standard itself tend to be overcome with need to consider the relevance of standards which may not
rapid development of new versions and strong products. necessarily be regarded as an open standard. Consider, for
example, RSS and PDF and MS Office file formats. Which, if
Failure to Satisfy User Needs and Expectations: An any, of these can be regarded as an open standard?
over-emphasis on immature open standards may be
detrimental to the end user even if beneficial to developers RSS: RSS is widely used for content syndication and is
or service providers. provided as standard on many blog platforms. RSS
actually nowadays refers to two different formats: RSS 1.0
Difficulties in Mandating and Enforcing Compliance: stands for RDF Site Summary whilst the apparently newer
There can be difficulties when mandating open standards. version RSS 2.0 is a different standard which standards for
For example: What exactly does „must‟ mean? When told Really Simple Syndication. Although the standards
you must comply with HTML standards, developer s provide similar functionality they have different
working on a project might ask, „What if I don‟t?‟ and governance regimes. In addition neither format seems to
„What if I use PDF instead of HTML?‟ There is a need to have a stable governance responsible for the continued
clarify the meaning of must and for an understandable, development of the formats. Despite such concerns (and
realistic and reasonable compliance regime. the development of the IETF Atom standard which sought
Such complexities are also acknowledged in the EU‟s to provide more stable governance for a related standard)
Interoperability Framework [2]. Despite such reservations, in in practice the development community has been willing
reality many IT development programmes are successful. The to make use of both versions of RSS, with libraries
success may be based on the deployment of agreed-upon and available for processing data provided in either of the
well-defined open standards. However in other cases, formats.
development work may adopt a more pragmatic approach, PDF: The PDF format was developed by Adobe.
making use of mature open standards but having a more Although the format was widely regarded as an open
flexible approach to newer standards when there has been no standard it was only in 2005 that the PDF/A archival
time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses and the format was standardized by ISO and 2008 when PDF 1.7
experiences gained in their use itself became an ISO standard.
MS Office formats: Microsoft are renowned for their
proprietary formats so it might appear self-evident that
STANDARDS their Office formats will be proprietary. However in 2008
In order to illustrate the difficulties in mandating use of open ISO standardize the latest version of the Office file format
standards a number of case studies are provided: as the OOXML format. This format is acknowledged to be
complex and seems to compete with a simple open
Coloured Book software: In the 1980s the Computer
standard for office documents, ODF. In addition
Board, which funded IT developments in the UK Higher
documents created by MS Office applications will not
Education sector, mandated use of Coloured Book
necessarily conform with the standard. But despite such
networking software to as a transition to ISO OSI network
criticisms the OOXML is an open standard.
standards, with central IT services in universities being
barred from adopted emerging TCP/IP protocols. It was From these examples we can see that:
only in the light on increasing pressures from the research There is a spectrum of openness: Formats may not be
community who found lack of Internet access a significant governed by a stable trusted and neutral governance body.
barrier to engagement with the international community However such formats are also not owned by a single
that the ban was relaxed and, at a later date, scrapped as organisation which can benefit financially by making
the UK HE community adopted Internet protocols. changes to the format or terms and conditions for its use.
SMIL and SVG: The W3C‟s SMIL (Synchronized Proprietary formats may evolve to being open: Such
Multimedia Integration Language) and SVG (Scalable evolution may be driven by pressure from the user
Vector Graphics) standards were developed to provide community (especially large-scale global organisations) or
rich and interoperable access to multimedia and graphical by government pressure (e.g. pressure from the US
formats on the Web. Since these standards had been Government bodies such as the Department of Defense on
developed by the W3C after the success and widespread Microsoft for their Office formats to be standardised).
take-up of HTML and, at a later date, CSS, it was felt that
these formats would be quickly adopted and replace It should be therefore noted that there may be circumstances
proprietary alternatives such as Flash. In reality these in which the use of open standards may not be the most
formats failed to gain acceptance in the market place and appropriate decision to make for a development project. The
Flash continued to dominant role in the provision of challenge, therefore, is to ensure that informed decisions are
highly interactive Web-based services. made and that risks are identified and minimised.
In light of the concerns described above a simple checklist to
assist technical managers and policy makers on decisions
regarding the selection and use of open standards has been
developed by UKOLN. The checklist is described in the paper
“Interoperability Across Digital Library Programmes? We
Must Have QA!” [3] and is summarized in Table 1.

Area Issues
Ownership Is standard owned by a recognised open
standards body?
Development Is there a community process for
processes developing the standard?
Availability Has the standard has been openly
Software for Are software tools (a) available for free,
use by readers, (b) available as open source and (c)
creators and available on multiple platforms?
developers. Figure 1: Contextual Approach to Selection of Standards
This approach aims to provide the flexibility needed in light
Fitness for Is the standard appropriate for the purpose of the various complexities described above. In addition there
purpose envisaged? is a need to ensure that the experiences gained in use of open
Resource issues What are the resource implications in standards, whether such experiences are positive or negative.
using the standard? In order to ensure that such experiences can be shared across
the development community, and, ideally, more widely, a
Complexity How complex is the standard? support infrastructure has been developed which is illustrated
Interoperability What is the degree of interoperability in Figure 2.
between applications that claim to
implement the standard?
Service How easy will it be to deploy the
deployment deliverable into service?
Preservation Is the standard suitable for long term
Approaches to What approaches can be taken to migrating
migration to more appropriate standards in the
Table 1: Checklist to Assist Selection of Standards


The checklist given above is intended for use in the context of Figure 2: Illustration of Support Infrastructure
a specific development project. In order to provide a The support infrastructure ensures that experiences gained in
framework for programme managers and funders with a the application of the contextual approach can be shared
broader approach for advising or mandating projects in their across the community. This can help ensure that policies for
use of standards a contextual model has been developed, future development work are based on evidence of previous
which was initially described in a paper on “Openness in successes and failures.
Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open
The experiences can be provided in distributed knowledge
Access” [4].
base which may include case studies and other centrally
As illustrated in Figure 1 the model makes use of a contexual managed resources through to resources such as Wikipedia
approach in which decisions on the section of standards is (although, of course, information gathered from such sources
determined by various contextual aspects, such as levels of will need to be evaluated carefully). In addition to the
funding; available expertise; etc. This context will determine knowledge based a communications infrastructure, which
the flexibility which funded projects may have in the selection may include project email lists, Twitter, etc. enables
of appropriate standards. The funding body will also discussions which inform policies and implementations to
determine policies on ensuring conformance with such take place.
policies, which could range from formal external validation
through to peer assessment and self-assessment or even
getting things wrong and learning from such mistakes.
TO USE OF OPEN STANDARDS 1. Assessing the Business Case for Standards, CETIS
An opportunities and risks has been developed by UKOLN <
which was presented as a position paper [5] at a CETIS pbusinesscaseforstandards.aspx>
meeting on the Future of Interoperability Standards. This 2. Towards Interoperability For European Public Services,
framework aims to support decision-making processes Annex II (European Interoperability Framework), EC,
regarding the selection of emergent new standards which may <>
be mandated in development programmes or the use of such
3. Interoperability Across Digital Library Programmes? We
standards by projects.
Must Have QA!, Kelly, B. Proceedings of the Research
Those wishing to make use of emergent standards should and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries, ECDL
document: 2004 Conference, <
Intended purpose: Specific
details of the intended uses of a 4. Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open
standard should be provided. Standards, Open Access, Kelly, B., Wilson, S. and
Metcalfe, R. ELPUB2007, <
Perceived benefits: Let‟s not focus/papers/elpub-2007/>
use open standards simply
because they are open; rather 5. An Opportunities and Risks Framework For Standards,
there‟s a need to provide details Kelly, B, UK Web Focus blog, 6 January 2010,
of the expected benefits. <
Perceived risks: A summary of
the perceived risks which use of ABOUT THIS BRIEFING PAPER
the standards may entail should
be documented. This briefing paper summarises several years of UKOLN
work in developing approaches to exploit the benefits of open
Missed opportunities: Details standards. The approaches described have been previously
of the missed opportunities and published in several papers which are available from
benefits which a failure to use <>.
open standards should be
documented. Our initial work in this area was developed as part of the
JISC-funded QA Focus project which developed a quality
Costs: The resource implications assurance framework for JISC programmes. A paper on
of use of the standards should be “Developing a Quality Assurance Culture For Digital Library
documented. Programmes” published in 2003 proposed a self-assessment
Risk minimisation: Once the risks have been identified approach for checking conformance with standards and other
approaches to risk minimisation should be documented. best practices. The adoption of such approaches was
subsequently described in “Deployment of Quality Assurance
Evidence base: Evidence which back up the assertions Procedures for Digital Library Programmes”.
made in use of the framework.
A paper on “A Standards Framework For Digital Library
Programmes” published in 2005 by staff from UKOLN,
CONCLUSIONS CETIS, AHDS and TechDis showed a shared understanding
This briefing paper has described approaches for the selection of the complexities of use of open standards and introduced
and use of open standards which have been developed at the layered approach to use of open standards.
UKOLN in conjunction with other JISC-funded organisations. The importance of context in use of open standards was
The paper has described the following approaches: highlighted in a paper on “A Contextual Approach to
Standards” which was written by staff from UKOLN, CETIS,
Use of a simple checklist approach which can be used by AHDS, OSS Watch and TechDis in 2006.
those involved in the section of appropriate open standards
in a specific project or development activity. The contextual approach was further developed in a paper on
“Addressing The Limitations of Open Standards” in 2007.
A layered model to assist programme managers or those
involved in developing policies across a set of In a paper on “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source,
development activities. Open Standards, Open Access” staff from UKOLN, CETIS
and OSS Watch outlined the similarities in approaches for the
A support infrastructure to ensure that the experiences
selection of use of open standards, open source software and
gained are shared with others.
open content.
An opportunities and risks model which ensures that
possible risks in the selection of new or immature A position paper on “An Opportunities and Risks Framework
standards are identified and documents and risk For Standards” was presented at CETIS‟s Future of
minimisation plans developed. Interoperability Standards event which introduced the
opportunities and risks framework.

This document is available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Version 0.3 published on 4 February 2011