The central theme at the IBM Open Source IT Analyst Conference in Stamford, Connecticut this week revolved around the word "open". The term is used with "open source" and also with "open standards" and there is often confusion about the meaning of the two terms. A standard is like a blueprint. An open standard is one that is freely available. Open source is software that is freely available and which may implement open standards. The two terms are independent.
At one extreme, open means you can take my idea and do whatever you want with it and you don’t even have to tell me you did so. At the other extreme, closed means my idea is mine and you can not use it or even see it. In a practical sense there is a wide spectrum in between open and closed. There are many factors in the debate but long term it is breakaway innovation among communities of developers and inventors that share a common vision that is the most important argument in favor of the expansion of open source software. The downside for entrenched monopolies or those resistant to change is that open source can cause disruption and a ton of incremental competition in markets. IBM’s Dr. Bob Sutor, vp for standards and open source, says "tough". Only the greatest sinners of the past can truly repent.
The most visible example of the open standards debate is what is going on in Massachusetts. (see prior story). Some people are calling the state’s decision to separate data formats from applications a "Bill of Rights" around information. A gentleman from Boston University told me he not only is confident the decision will stick but that it will be a model for the free world. A Norwegian official said that proprietary data will no longer be acceptable. It is a struggle against existing ways of doing things but long term there are huge benefits for all of us if open document forms proliferate resulting in consistent, error-free, structured ways of doing things. Electronic physician notes about our healthcare would be a good example. IBM has targeted healthcare and education as two industries that can benefit from open documents and the company is opening up it’s intellectual property treasure trove to help enable these two industries to make a quantum leap.
What about patents? Similar to open vs. closed, patents are not all good or all bad. It is quite impressive to see how IBM has been able to balance it’s proprietary products and it’s open source solutions. They are building proprietary code and innovation on top of the open source base. At the same time they are giving patents away that have the potential to accelerate the quality of healthcare and education. In parallel they are leading an effort to improve the quality and integrity of the patent process that all companies use. The patent process has been like the jury system — not perfect but nobody has come up with a better way. In the case of the patent system, while many companies complain about the system, IBM is taking the lead to do something about it.