Open Standards Alliance: make your voice heard

by Andy Oram

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A unique opportunity will come about two weeks from now
(September 12-14, 2004) to participate in a discussion that could
unblock software development and promote both open standards and open
source software.

John Terpstra, a noted software designer, author, and consultant who
is best known as a founder of the Samba team, has organized a
conference called "Open Source, Open Standards" that will do more than
educate its audience. The audience will become the show. Audience
members will discuss deployment issues facing software developers and
users, and see their input recorded in a book to be distributed to
legislators who deal with such "intellectual property" issues as
copyright and patent law.

I have talked to John for years about Samba, publishing, and his
volunteer activities such as advisor to
Linux Professional Institute.
John has also spent years trying to get governments to understand the
important of standards and free software.

But a funny thing happens when you try to represent the public
interest to legislators and regulators. They like to dismiss the
public interest as a "special interest." One often sees this in
environmental regulation, for instance: the government lumps together
those who want to harvest forests for profit or dump their waste in
rivers with those who try to protect those forests and rivers. They're
all just "special interests."

In the same way, an advocacy group such as the Free Software
Foundation gets told by the government that it's just another special
interest group, such as the Business Software Alliance or the Motion
Picture Association of America.

By such linguistic sleight of hand, legislators and regulators excuse
themselves for pleasing the special interests that just happen to
donate hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For Terpstra, the way out of this trap is to bring together the real,
undisputed public and make its voice heard. Thus the purpose of "Open
Source, Open Standards." Check out the
web site:
the speaker roster is very impressive if you have followed the world
of free software much. But the key is for the conference to hear from
representatives of ordinary companies that develop or bring in

Each panel will consist of short speeches and moderated panel
discussion followed by at least half an hour of moderated audience
discussion. People are coming from as far as Australia to discuss the
importance of standards in government.

What barriers do companies face in spreading the use of software?
Where could more standards, or more knowledge of existing standards,
help them? What do they do in the absence of standards? What would
make free software more appealing to companies?

Results from the conference, along with essays by industry leaders,
will be published in book form and given to government
representatives, as well as to companies they employ in the areas of
copyrights and patents, in order to prove the value of open standards
as well as open source. The book will be published by Sun
Microsystems, which has generously backed Terpstra and helped fund the
conference. This doesn't give Sun any particular weight at the
conference itself. But it should help assuage nervous free software
fans who were afraid that Sun would retreat into a proprietary
strategy following its recent settlement with Microsoft.

The conference should also move the fields of standards and open
source forward. Once the attendees identify the key things that stand
in the way of their understanding and using standards or free
software, people who produce standards and free software can address
the problems in practical ways. For instance, guidance on how to find
and use standards may become more available to companies who can't
afford to send their top employees to years' worth of standards
committee meetings.

Terpstra is committed to promoting open, public, royalty-free
standards. This means standards that anyone can read and implement,
and that don't require any payments or licensing, even "reasonable"
ones. A payment or license that looks reasonable to a commercial
venture in the United States is prohibitive to many companies in the
developing world, as well as to free software developers. The

debate at the W3C over licenses

in 2001 shows how close to disaster one can come.

Terpstra told me last night that about 70 attendees had registered for
the conference so far, and that he was hoping for 125-150. Look over
the site and consider going. And then keep coming back to see what the
Open Standards Alliance is doing next.

Do standards matter?