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Open standards are no panacea

The Open Group recently posted a "Developer Declaration of Independence" to their Web site and invited developers to electronically sign it. The document lays out reasons why an open architecture is a good thing and then declares that developers "have the right to self-determination, and, by virtue of that right, they have a choice between many possible software solutions to best satisfy their IT needs" and "Cooperation among all developers is called for to increase awareness, adoption, and protection of open standards as an essential building block of a fair and competitive IT industry" among other find-sounding sentiments.

Leaving aside any possible self-interest that The Open Group might have in this declaration (they do, after all, sell conformance testing), it's worth thinking about whether open standards are always such a good thing. Open standards seem like a sort of "motherhood and apple pie" value for IT, but remember, you wouldn't like an unlimited number of children running around, or a diet consisting of nothing but apple pie.

All other things being equal, I don't have any problem choosing an open standard solution. For example, given the choice between a proprietary communications protocol for passing information over the Internet, and SOAP over HTTP, with both solutions coming from the same vendor and sharing the same performance and functionality, I'd choose SOAP every time. But the mere fact that I need to include all those qualifiers makes the actual problem clear: all other things are never equal.

Suppose you're choosing between an open standard maintained by a batch of hobbyists and a proprietary one backed by a company that's had a good track record of delivering 4-hour technical support from full-time engineers? What if the open standard has 20% fo the functionality and 20% of the performance of the closed alternative? How do you make the decision between an open standard that's fervently backed by a few thousand open source advocates and a closed on that's already installed on millions of PCs?

Open standards are a fine thing, and much of the technology that we depend on these days is held together by one or another open standard. But that's not to say that a blind commitment to open standards will always be the best thing for your company. In the real world, you need to evaluate all of the factors surrounding a technological choice, not just whether the architecture involved is approved from some idealistic point of view.

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