UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Open Standards and the JISC IE

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 4 September 2008

The Ariadne article on Lost in the JISC Information Environment has generated some interesting discussions, including my colleague Paul Walk’s post in which he suggests that all models are wrong, but some are useful and Andy’ Powell’s post entitled Lost in the JISC Information Environment?.

I’ll leave the discussions on the technical architecture to others, but thought I’d pick up on Andy’s comment that:

.. the technical standards certainly were intended to be prescriptive.  I can remember discussions in UKOLN about the relative merits of such an approach vs. a more ad hoc, open-ended and experimental one but I argued at the time that we wouldn’t build a coherent environment if we just let people do whatever the hell they wanted.  Maybe I was wrong?

Myself, Andy, Pete Johnston and Paul Miller were the ones who had those long discussions about the role of open standards and the JISC Information Environment (IE).  I was the person, who had been introduced to standards through my involvement with the Web from its early days, who was the most adamant on the need to use open standards, where open meant the standard had been ratified by a trusted neutral standards organisation, such as the W3C. I was therefore never in favour of standards and protocols which weren’t open in this sense, including Adobe’s PDF or Sun’s Java. On the other hand, I was always fairly relaxed about the technologies used to implement the services, not being too concerned if licensed software was felt to provide advantages over open source alternatives, for example.

It was Paul Miller who suggested than my stance on open standards was too inflexible, suggesting that there was a spectrum to openness, rather than a fixed binary divide. As a result of Paul’s comments and subsequent discussions in UKOLN I wrote a briefing document which suggested that rather than seeking a formal definition of open standards, we needed a more flexible approach based on an understanding of the characteristics of open standards.  And the need for such flexibility became even more apparent when the success of RSS had to be balanced against the lack of formal standardisation of RSS (both 1.0 and 2.0).

And in retrospect many of the W3C standards which I had felt should form the basis of the JISC IE have clearly failed to have any significant impact in the market place – compare, for example, the success of Macromedia’s Flash (SWF) format with the niche role that W3C’s SMIL format has.

Just as the open source debate seems to have matured (and I think that the JISC OSS Watch service has helped to move that debate from the polarised opinions we were seeing several years ago) we still need, I feel, to have a much more sophisticated understanding of the role open standards have to play in development activities. And, as with the decisions institutions (and individuals) have to make regarding their use of externally-hosted Web 2.0 services, so funders, developers and project managers will need to give more thought to the risks as well as the promised benefits of use of open standards.

I’ve written, in conjunction with staff from CETIS, OSS Watch and the AHDS, a number of peer-reviewed papers on this topics ( Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access, Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards, A Contextual Framework For Standards, A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes and Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites). I suspect it is time to revisit this topic.

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5 Responses to “Open Standards and the JISC IE”

  1. Ah, those were the days… ;-)

  2. Brian,

    OSS Watch recently ran a seties of expert workshops. These workshops were designed to help OSS Watch learn from the experts and plan the most effective use of our continued funding.

    One of these workshops looked at how we can help level the playing field for open source in procurement activities in the education sector.

    You may be pleased to hear that one of the recomendations was to start drawing attention to the fact that open source is not just about source code, but also about the adoption and creation of open standards.

    OSS Watch have always acoided the issue of open standards. The reality of the open source world is that the definition of an open standard is very loose. In fact, the fact that the source code is available means that all the implemented data formats were open automatically. Maybe not formally specified and ratified, but certainly open and implementable (errr… implemented).

    So, when you say:

    rather than seeking a formal definition of open standards, we needed a more flexible approach based on an understanding of the characteristics of open standards.

    In the open source world we find widespread adoption of Open Standards, but it is possible to diverge from those standards without enforcing locking. This is a huge advantage when it takes so long for standards to be specified and agreed by committees and standards bodies.

    OSS Watch would be happy to explore these ideas further. Just what are the advantages and disadvantages of formalised standards against open implementations of data formats?

  3. [...] Kelly suggests: rather than seeking a formal definition of open standards, we needed a more flexible approach [...]

  4. [...] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 18 November 2008 Following my blog post on Open Standards and the JISC IE which I wrote back in September Stephen Downes responded with some comments which I include [...]

  5. [...] Back in September 2008 I highlighted the importance of market place acceptance of open standards: [...]

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