Standards and Open Source

by Stuart Yeates on 1 October 2004 , last updated

Archived This page has been archived. Its content will not be updated. Further details of our archive policy.


Standards play an important role in the running of modern computer systems. They allow users to purchase new hardware and software with the confidence that it will work with their existing setup. They enable us, for example, to connect our computers together into a network, and let our applications talk to one another. Standards support healthy competition, because if a computer or program uses standards, it can perform the same tasks as other systems using these standards regardless of who produced the hardware or software.

Types of standards

True standards are produced by national or international bodies with committees of experts from across the relevant industry. They form the basis of all consumer electronics and underpin such ubiquitous computing technologies as USB connectors and the Internet. Some bodies, including the World Wide Web Consortium, use the word Recommendation instead of standard for their work. In this document we use the term open standards to refer to both normal standards, the Recommendations from the W3C, and the RFCs from the IETF (see below).

De facto standards are formed by the practices of the market leaders in a particular field. De facto standards may eventually be turned into as formal standards if the market leaders decides that growing the market is more beneficial than growing their market share.

Proprietary standards are produced and controlled by one company, and may be encumbered by patents, subject to arbitrary change, or not fully documented. They may, however, be in widespread use.

Any open standard is amenable to implementation as open source software. De facto standards pose significant technical problems, however, not only because the market leader can change the de facto standard with every release of the software, but also because they can incorporate patented methods and algorithms into the standard. Patent-protected proprietary standards are not amenable to implementation as open source, because patents are normally licensed by software or hardware installation, and open source licences cannot permit restrictions on the number of installs.

Standards bodies

Open standards are published and maintained by standards bodies, each with a distinct scope and manner of operation. Scopes vary from narrowly-focused industry groups to the universal remit of the ISO. Procedures range from the review and minor editing of submitted proposed standards to lengthy processes involving scoping studies, consultations, international meetings, multiple revisions, and translations of the standard into multiple languages.

There are a number of important standards bodies for open source software:
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
This is the American-based organisation which has driven the standardisation of computer hardware and low-level communications systems.
  • A very technically oriented organisation.
  • Technical quality is the overriding influence in the standardisation process.
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
This is the body that standardises the networking protocols on which the Internet is based, as RFCs (Request For Comments).
  • Requires two separate, independent implementations of the standard.
  • Has a long process but one that can be relatively cheap, since physical meetings are not required.
  • They are the most open source friendly of the standards bodies, leading to a significant number of open source implementations of IETF protocols.
International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO)
The ISO is a standards body with a universal remit and members from every country with a national standards body.
  • A truly diverse, multi-cultural organisation.
  • Synchronised with the United Nations on issues such as the changing of country names.
  • Used as a gold-standard for resolving politically and culturally loaded issues, particularly in the fields of nationality and character sets.
  • Sufficiently important standards issued by other bodies can be proposed as ISO standards by national standards bodies.
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
This is the membership body that issues the recommendations on which the world wide web is based. Its Recommendations are developed by working groups drawn from members and invited experts, and voted upon by members. Although some of the older Recommendations were developed at an abstract level, all current work must pass a rigorous test of at least two independent implementations before being voted upon by the membership.
  • The W3C is a young organisation with a relatively quick process.
  • Widely lauded for its technical work on inclusion and accessibility.
Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)
OASIS is a standards body developing detailed web and XML standards on an industry by industry basis, largely following the work of the W3C.
  • Promotes sector-level interoperability.
  • Allows companies and organisations within an industry or sector to propose sufficiently advanced, internally developed standards as open standards.
  • Some standards proposals appear to be proposed for largely competitive reasons, which is seen as worrying by some observers.

The majority of participants in these standards bodies participate at their own expense, or the expense of their employers, who in the case of software standards are commonly software vendors. These same software vendors use standards as competitive and marketing tools in the software marketplace, which can raise concerns about conflicts of interest. In some cases there are also academics, open source contributors, and not-for-profit groups participating.

Many bodies have mechanisms in place to guard against conflicts of interest, including explicitly stating the copyright licence on standards and standards-related documents and requiring participants to disclose any patents that may affect implementations of the standard. Such measures are not retrospective, however, and a number of high-profile standards, such as MPEG-4, are only realistically available to those working to a commercial business model.

Further reading