Open vs. Open

As someone who’s been around the block more than once in the technology industry, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a plethora of developments, ideas and concepts, some good, some not so good. One particular debate, or perhaps, a point is confusion, is around the word ‘open’.

In the early days of computing, groups of like-minded individuals came together for the purpose of defining standard ways to ‘do things.’ For the most part, these folks realized that it was generally better for the industry, as well as the users of technology, to establish standards so that systems AND people could work together. There is no doubt that many of these groups have changed the nature of computing and technology for the better. Email flows, the internet works, people can view documents, pictures, listen to music, etc.

Standards tend to come in two varieties, open and de facto. Open standards are designed and controlled usually by some form of governing body and made available to all interested parties. De facto standards are typically owned and governed by a commercial organization and not necessarily released. Regardless of open or de facto, standards are useful to creating meaningful experiences and solutions. What’s interesting about open standards is they allow for organizations, commercial or otherwise, to develop applications and solutions that can work in a greater eco-system while allowing for innovations and creativity in the implementation of the standard. If your organization writes better code, faster code, has more bells and whistles, it has the opportunity to gain better adoption than competitors. Open standards are usually good.

Fast forward a few years to discuss the next wave of ‘open’ from a technology perspective: open source. Undoubtedly, open source software has had yet another dramatic impact on technology. I would venture to say that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who uses the Internet in any fashion who does not get benefit from the many efforts of the open source community. Web servers, email servers, browsers, and so many more applications and solutions are made freely available to the world to leverage and use. The nature of open source software is to be developed in the open, meaning, the actual source code is accessible to all who wish to see it or work on it.

I’ve introduced open standards and open source. They do share a couple common traits. They are freely available to all interested parties, they are generally developed and governed by committee and, as pointed out, they are both usually thought of as good. However, and this is a BIG however that many people seem to ignore, nowhere is there a rule that specifies open source and open standards are mutually exclusive. I will admit that where you find open source, you generally find open standards, but, think about how many commercially available products there are that are fully dependent on open standards that are not in anyway open source! I would also venture a guess that you may find open source software out there that is not dependent on open standards as well. Regardless, my point stands, while there may be some really good reasons to use open source and open standards in conjunction with each other, nothing says it HAS to be this way.

So, why do so many technologists lump open source and open standards together as if they are the same thing?

I think it is also a good idea to point out the that the goals of these two efforts, while sometimes complementary, are not the same. Open standards are driving for interoperability between systems or applications, while, the goal of open source is to make high-quality software available to the market free of charge.

One more fast forward, let’s add the third wave of open, that of open government. Open government carries with it the promise of dramatically altering the way citizens view and engage with government. There is the promise of unprecedented levels of transparency, participation and collaboration, driving accountability and effectiveness like never before. Like open source and open standards, there’s no doubt open government has the potential to be a good thing, right?

Now back to word ‘open.’ Just like there are people who make the mistake of lumping together open source and open standards as if they are the same, I’m now witnessing people adding open government to the ‘bundle,’ making the assumption that for government to be open, it must rely solely on open source and open standards. Now really folks, I will not argue that the end goal of open government will not in many ways benefit from open standards and to some extent open source, but, are they really mutually exclusive? Are there no opportunities for innovative commercial products and services, de facto standards, and custom solutions in open government?

Unlike open source and open standards, open government is about far more than technology or access to ‘raw’ data. In fact, to illustrate my point, doesn’t open government also need to take into consideration a few little non-technical details, such as new policies and behavioral changes??

I do understand the tendency to view the world through personal filters, where we assume everyone else has the same perspectives and needs, but, we need to question the idea that adding the word ‘open’ to something automatically associates it to all others things dubbed ‘open.’ That approach can be quite limiting and short-sighted. Rather, especially with regards to open government, let’s help our government leaders by keeping them focus on the desired outcomes, their intended audience and only then, allow the discussion of which technologies to bring to the party.

Remember, open government should be about people, not technology.

About Bobby Caudill

Since 2004, Bobby has been responsible for global go-to-market strategies for Adobe Government Solutions. As a government subject matter expert, Bobby acts as an evangelist for open government solutions focused on citizen engagement. Prior to joining Adobe, Bobby held CTO positions with Ikimbo and VCampus. With Ikimbo, Bobby pioneered concepts that put people back into previously automated business processes by integrating elements of BPM, Instant Messaging, and collaboration. When combined, these elements allowed for a more rapid response to ever changing business environments by gathering the necessary resources, (people - based on presence and availability) into an online collaboration session and providing actionable information to drive better decision making. During his tenure with VCampus, Bobby was the vision behind one of the world’s first fully hosted eLearning environments. Bobby and his team of developers were responsible for creating an environment that was conducive to learning, teaching, engaging and creating using nothing more than early web technologies.

12 Responses

  1. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you …

    for standing up with the rest of us against the herd of OpenGov “johnny-come-latelys” who so fervently wish that, to create a new culture in government, ALL we have to do chant the mantra of …

    release the …Data … Data … Data.

    For the past year, I have been trying to engage them in the possibility that Technology, alone, will not change behavior.

    But, noooooo. I must be a technophobic Luddite because I am not joining their search for the OpenGov “killer app”… even though I’ve been online for 20 years and set up the first webforum to comment on a federally proposed project (1997).

    Thank you, Luke Fretwell, for encouraging Bobby to post here. It shows that you understand the danger of the echo-chamber to the OpenGov movement.

    Please, anyone, let me know if there is someplace (better than a blog) to carry on this discussion about “Yes, Tech is great, but culture change takes more than that.”

  2. Stephen,

    Thank you for the support as well. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss your thoughts on this topic. (and many other related ones as well)

    Since we met here through Luke, I will ask for his guidance on where he would like to see us carry on this discussion.

    All the best,


  3. Don, of course, the beauty of these forums is our ability to (hopefully) respectfully disagree. I read over your response, I’m curious about your response to my simple assertion that placing the word ‘Open’ in front of something does not make it, by definition, mutually exclusive. In fact, you are the second open source advocate to characterize me completely wrong! (I’m still looking for my “irrational religious connotations”. lol )

    Please see:

    So, while I would love to knock your socks off in a debate, I have nothing to debate, with the exception that you’ve completely misunderstood the nature of my post and have tried to position me as “anti-open source”. As I pointed out to Gunnar, I am not attacking open source software or the process by which it is developed and I am certainly not suggesting it is not useful to open government, or that it is, a ‘dirty word’, on the contrary! Given that the company I work for is very active in both the open standards and open source world, that would be an nonsensical assertion.

    My point is simply this. On the road to open government, there’s no single mode of transportation. To reach the full promise of this great experiment, not only is there a huge requirement to change culture, but there is a need for a healthy combination of open standards, defacto ‘standards’, ‘proprietary’ tools and, last but not least, open source to be brought together based on the needs and requirements of the people, not based on how they were designed, coded and deployed.

    In my opinion, innovation is good, regardless of where it is spawned…..

  4. “I’m curious about your response to my simple assertion that placing the word ‘Open’ in front of something does not make it, by definition, mutually exclusive.”

    And my point is…who said it did?

    It seems that the more people are misinterpreting your own words as “an effort to take open source of the table” the more likely it is that those words should probably change if that is not your intention.

    “In my opinion, innovation is good, regardless of where it is spawned…”

    Great, but how is this relevant? Do you think I am against innovation?

  5. Brad Thompson

    Well written my old friend!

    If I may be so bold as to apply an analogy to your comments. I see the issue as comparable to the evolution of transportation (whether rail or vehicular). Standards evolved from both commercial and other innovations, sometimes out of mere necessity. Recall the completely diabolical mess that was the former Soviet rail system of mandated standards coming from multiple fiefdoms and the resulting rotting cabbage at the depots. The goal does not necessitate that all the locomotives (and their inner workings) be in the public domain and that all the carriers be boxcars. That type of mindset will completely derail the goals of the open government initiative.


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