Leave the door wide open

How open standards and platform independence maximize your choice

Standard issue

ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, suggests on their website that we should think of standards “as a formula that describes the best way of doing something.” This may sound a bit vague, but a more exhaustive definition follows:

“Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organizations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, trade associations, users or regulators.”

In spite of its somewhat high-flown language, this definition gives you an idea of how common standards are. They really are everywhere. Tens of thousands of standards regulate just about everything you can think of: food safety, medical devices, images for computer files…

ISO has a membership of 165 national standards bodies, but there are many other standards-developing organizations that specialize in particular industries and technologies such as the Internet. A vast ecosystem made up of myriads of interconnected networks, the Internet is not regulated by a central authority. So, in order for all those networks to communicate with each other – and for us to be able to use the Internet without hindrance – standards need to have freely accessible specifications. They need to be open, hence the name “open standards.”

Keeping an open mind

Since different standards organizations use different guidelines, there exists no universal definition of open standards, but advocates all agree on the fundamentals which can be condensed as follows.

An open standard is a format or interface that…

  • is freely and publicly available
  • is subject to no legal or technical restrictions
  • is available for interoperability

In other words, it can be adopted, implemented and updated.

A simple example of an open standard is HTML5, the programming language used to design and present online content. The fact that it is open means that you can create a website and be sure that it will work, regardless of the device or the browser you use. Similarly, you can create a plain text file (.txt) in Notepad and then open it in another text editor such as Microsoft Word – like HTML5, a plain text file is an open standard.

When there exists more than one type of software that can interface with the same application, we’re talking about an open interface. The same is true for hardware: you can hook up several brands of product to a certain device with an open interface. Take USB, for instance: a flash drive can be used with any desktop computer or laptop that has a USB port, irrespective of the brand.

By sharing open standards, businesses create value for themselves in the literal sense, but they also provide great value to their customers by enabling them to collaborate with others, upgrade their applications, choose the software/hardware they wish to use and not have to worry about compatibility. (We will talk about compatibility, or the lack thereof, a bit later on.) In addition, society as a whole can benefit from open standards because they ensure that systems and services are more efficient, more competitive and more innovative.

You may be thinking to yourself, “If there are open standards, there must also be standards that are closed?” You’re right. They’re called proprietary standards.

Beyond your control

As the name suggests, proprietary standards are owned by an organization or an individual. When it comes to using, distributing or modifying them, there are limits as to what you can do. They may be free to use, but their file specification is closed, and whatever you can do is regulated by predefined conditions such as end-user license agreements or terms of service agreements. A well-known proprietary format is Microsoft Word. It must be noted, however, that products developed around proprietary standards work well with each other: all Microsoft software should work on Microsoft Windows, for example.

In fact, the proprietary approach is what you could call traditional. Typically, the products created by an organization have always been protected by copyright, trademark or a patent to make sure that they cannot be copied or “stolen” since they are intellectual property. The motivation behind this is to make customers buy other products offered by the same company. Paradoxically, this is also the key weakness of the proprietary approach: customers may be reluctant to buy a product or service that limits their choice. If they do, they might find themselves in something of a trap. In the early days of iTunes, this happened to many people: the music they purchased via Apple’s platform could only be played on an iPad or within the iTunes application.

The proprietary technologies – be they software or hardware – used by a certain provider are often incompatible with those used by its competitors. Consequently, customers cannot simply replace a product or a service that they’ve been using and switch to an equivalent solution offered by another vendor. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as vendor lock-in.

Don’t get locked in

Imagine that your company invests a lot of money in a particular vendor’s service. You make a commitment by signing a five-year license agreement, maybe a hardware refresh contract as well, but later on the vendor increases its prices, or perhaps you experience a dip in the quality of its service. The most critical issue, however, is that vendors can have too much control over their clients’ data. In order to preserve and protect all the data and information that essentially forms the backbone of your business, you have no choice but to accept that control, and when the contract runs out, renewing it is your only option. You would like to get out of this predicament, but you don’t know how – you find yourself locked in.

The good news is that open standards can prevent this so-called “vendor lock-in” from occurring – in addition to security aspects such as greater transparency in regard to compliance with legal requirements as well as better maintainability, this is one of the greatest advantages that open standards offer. By relying on them, you need not worry about becoming dependent on individual vendors and can ensure that your data doesn’t get formally locked up in closed systems. Vendor neutrality brings with it more flexibility, a more efficient and innovative use of resources, interoperability and better overall communication within your organization.

For the above reasons, the Infinica platform relies exclusively on open standards. This allows you to act independently from us at any time, if you wish to do so. The focus of our company philosophy is on long-term cooperation that is built on trust. It is not artificial barriers but convincing product solutions that help us bind our customers to us – solutions that they can use freely, anywhere and anytime. Just like that Austrian debit card you can use in Morocco or wherever you happen to be.

If you want to find out more, our experts will be happy to advise you – contact us now.