Is the Open Standards Alliance Betraying Open Source?
Published 10:07, 21 January 09
In early November, 2006, a group of leading open solutions and open source application developers got together to form an alliance dedicated to growing the market for enterprise class open business solutions. Open source development had proven itself at the operating system and middleware layers but was still in the “early adopter” stage at the application level. ISVs participating in the OSA kickoff meeting identified three important areas where collective action could be successful in accelerating adoption:
Defining and promoting guidelines and best practices for interoperability between applications.
Fostering a multi-vendor "meta community" of users, developers, and systems integrators.
Driving advocacy and drive awareness about the benefits of open solutions for business customers.
All of us agreed that none of these challenges could be readily addressed by any one vendor in isolation. Issues of awareness, interoperability and community are inherently collective in nature, such that collective action is required to address them. This led to the decision to create a trade association through which collective activity could be coordinated.
As you can see, this was all about improving the interoperability between open source solutions in order to make the overall appeal of free software to enterprises greater.
There was, it is true, a slight blurring of the focus, as reflected in the name: Open *Solutions* Alliance, not Open *Source* Alliance:
When we launched, there was some criticism of the OSA not being true to the spirit of open source because we had some members with non-OSI-compliant-licensed products. We accepted that in good faith, as we made the mistake of not being clear about what we meant by an “open solution”. So, we responded with the “open solution definition”, which is a broader definition that is inclusive of companies that may publish their source code but have commercial licences for it. Many companies who say their products are “based on open source” would probably fit this definition.
That was fair enough, and since then, the OSA has moved forward with useful work on the interoperability front.
One significant change is the arrival of a new president, Anthony Gold. Here's what he says to the The Reg in one of his first interviews:
Recently named Open Solutions Alliance president Anthony Gold told The Reg that his goal is to take the two-year-old organization to the "next level" by turning it into a destination for practical advice on interoperability between proprietary and closed-source software.
To get there, Gold hopes he can persuade Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and others to join the group, even though the OSA membership includes JasperSoft, Ingres, and Talend, that challenge Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM in business intelligence, databases, and integration. The OSA is a not-for-profit group of 20 customers and open-source companies and communities.
Gold said he has good relations with people at Microsoft and Oracle to open the door, and characterized his talks as "ongoing". Gold will likely try to leverage his contacts through his main job as vice president and general manager of Unisys' open-source business.
This is a dramatic shift – from interoperability between open source apps, to interoperability between open source and proprietary software. Where the first is about making the free software ecosystem stronger by helping its components to fit together better – and thus offer an even better alternative to the closed source ecosystems - the second is about about making open source simply another part of the proprietary one.
To my mind, that's really a betrayal of the OSA's original purpose. Improving interoperability with proprietary codebases does nothing to promote free software – on the contrary. It means that free software plays by the rules of the closed source world – think of how Microsoft has embraced, extended and extinguished the definition of “open” in order to dilute and pervert the true meaning of open standards (OOXML, anyone?) and open source.
In addition, interoperability with proprietary systems often implies explicitly entering into licensing agreements or implicitly accepting software patents. Both weaken the very basis of free software.
Instead, open source companies should be standing fully behind truly open standards, and pushing for their wider adoption in the enterprise world. Actively supporting proprietary standards simply bolsters them, and makes displacing with fairer alternatives even harder.
The original purpose of the OSA was to strengthen the appeal of a different and better way of doing things in software, not simply to create a convenient umbrella organisation for easier kowtowing to the old way.
I don't know how the individual company members of the OSA feel about this dramatic policy shift, but I predict that the OSA will dwindle into insignificance unless it returns to its roots as an “Solutions Alliance” based on true openness, and not simply a “Solutions Alliance” that is open to all-comers, including proprietary vendors pushing patent-encumbered closed source solutions to the detriment of free software.