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Open Source and Open Standards

The previous post finally mentioned open source CMS'es. To supply readers with some update on the discussions of open source and open standards, here are a couple o' paragraphs from my thesis on these subjects. Note that Sun has since the time of writing decided to open source Java.

Open Source

Having given some indicators to open source WCM systems, the concept should be properly explained. Open source software refers to programs whose source code is made available for use or modification. This means that open source software is in fact free to acquire [Walli, 2005] and change.

A lot of people find this hard to believe, and many presume that such software is produced on a volunteer basis, and therefore lacks quality, security and consistency [Economist, 2006]. This is true for a lot of smaller open source projects, but many projects show signs of the opposite [Raymond, 2000], the most famous of these being the operating system GNU/Linux. There is a prominent case for the use of open source [Wheeler, 2005], and larger companies do in fact develop open source software on an economically feasible business model [OSI, 2005].

The revenue can be generated by offering support, customization and plug-ins. Large software companies like IBM and Sun have for the last years been funding, as well as founding, open source projects to ensure that their ideas and standards are established throughout the open software community [IBM, 2005], [Sun, 2006]. This thesis will not delve further into the principles and ideas of the open source movement. The interests of WCMS users lie in the risks versus the benefits of the system. It is important to remember that most open source material comes without guarantees and warranty unless support is bought from the vendor or developer, and this is where the cost of “free” software lies.

Open source projects have a tendency to prefer re-use and compatibility over developing their own formats and protocols. Whenever possible they embrace open standards in an effort to receive further adoption from the community. Open standards are of course also adopted by proprietary software developers, but not to the same extent as with the open source alternatives.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is persistent in bordering itself from the Open Source community [GNU, 2006]. A short summary of the debate is that the methods of the two communities are the same, but the ideals are different. The FSF support the practice of open source of ethical reasons, while the Open Source movement does so for practical reasons.

For the purpose of this thesis it is not the ideal freedom of the software which has implications for developers, but the availability of the source code, the option to modify or extend it and the presence of open standards. The term used within this thesis when talking about open source is compliant to that of the Open Source Definition [OSI, 2001].

Open Standards

The relation between open standards and web content management is easy to find, as the Internet itself is based on open standards. The open source relation is similar. The most well known connection between open source software and the Web is by no doubt the Apache web-server. This open source project has been powering the majority of the world's web-sites for many years [Netcraft, 2006].

The openness of the Web attracts open standards and open source projects. A WCMS is a complex piece of software which leaves single developers with much fatigue if they should ever attempt to implement such a system on their own. The culture of the World Wide Web has naturally led such developers together in numerous open source implementations which will be further explored in the next chapters.

A standard is an agreement of two or more parties regarding a product, specification or other. Standards used by web applications are mostly guarded by the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Examples of successful standards are hypertext markup language (HTML), hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and resource description framework (RDF).

System developers can choose either to use existing standards or invent their own. Sometimes not having to follow a standard is easier and quicker than having to fulfill a specification's every need for details, but along the network externalities in the system where other systems interconnect, open standards must be followed [Ciborra, 2000]. This applies to the technology used for transport or storage.

A typical transport technology standard is HTTP, through which all web applications are made accessible.

Storage technology standards are the format in which content is stored or presented. A web-page must output format in HTML, pure text or a standardized binary format like Bitmap pictures or Macromedia's Flash.

Proprietary standards can be open like Adobe's PDF format and Macromedia's Flash file format, or closed like Microsoft Office Word documents and Powerpoint presentations. A proprietary standard can only be changed by its owner. You can make software that reads both open and closed standards, but discovering how the closed standard is built up internally can be difficult, and under certain certain condition, so-called reverse-engineering is considered illegal [LII, 2005].

Microsoft uses a multitude of proprietary standards to enable other vendors to produce software for the Windows platform. Examples are DirectX for graphics and MFC for desktop applications.

Note that even though Microsoft and their Office products are frequently used as examples of proprietary software, they are not the “big bad wolf” regarding use of open standards. Such advanced software can not always suffice for the bureaucratic democracy and slow development of open standards. Microsoft is more and more embracing the use of open standards like WebDAV and SOAP [W3C, 2003] in their newest software. In fact the next version of the Office suite will use zipped XML-files for storage, like OpenOffice has been doing for several years [Microsoft, 2006], [Spangler, 2006].

Research on open standards abounds in information infrastructure research, especially regarding the architecture of the Internet and the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) effort [Hanseth, 1998], [Hanseth, 2002].

A WCMS will naturally output its content through HTML on a web-site. Internally, however, the implementation may store the content in a home-grown format, for example a relational database with a streamlined scheme following no standard (except the standard of SQL itself). As long as the company uses the WCMS the way it was built to be used, the inside workings of the content repository is not important. The problem arises when the company either wishes to change the output or use of the content, or to replace the WCMS all together. In most organization, this does eventually happen. Requirements change.

How will the content be exported from the old WCMS and imported into the new one? Manually copying the HTML code from each web-page will no doubt be a very tiresome effort. Another alternative is reading content directly from the relational database with an exporter-application. If the WCMS has not supplied one, developing this application could be a large task. And then an application would have to be developed for importing the content into the new WCMS.

The best solution would be if the storage of both WCMS-es utilized a standard content repository, so the content of the old system could simply be dragged-and-dropped into the new one. Unfortunately, today there exists almost as many different content repository implementations as there are content management system vendors.

References:

Claudio U. Ciborra and Associates 2000, From Control to Drift, Oxford University Press

Economist 2006, "Open, but not as usual" Retrieved 18. March, 2006

GNU Project 2006, "The Free Software Definition" Retrieved 23. April, 2006

Hanseth, O. 1998, "Inscribing behaviour in information infrastructure standards" Retrieved November 25, 2005

Hanseth, O. 2002, "From systems and tools to networks and infrastructures" - from design to cultivation. Towards a theory of ICT solutions and its design methodology implications." Retrieved 30. April, 2006

IBM Media Relations 2005, " IBM Acquires Gluecode Software" Retrieved 30. April, 2006

LII 2005, "Digital Millennium Copyright Act, § 1201. Circumvention of copyright protection systems" Retrieved 27. April, 2006

Microsoft Corp. 2006, "XML Paper Specification" Retrieved 3. April, 2006

Netcraft 2006, "April 2006 Web Server Survey" Retrieved 10. April, 2006

Open Source Initiative 2001, "The Open Source Definition" Retrieved 23. April, 2006

The Open Source Initiative 2005, "Open Source Case for Business" Retrieved 18. March, 2006

Raymond, E. S. 2000, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" Retrieved 3. April, 2006

Spangler, T. 2006, "OpenDocument vs. Office Open XML" Retrieved 5. April, 2006

Sun Microsystems Inc. 2005, "Sun's Open Source Initiatives" Retrieved 3. April, 2006

W3C 2003, "SOAP Version 1.2 Part 1: Messaging Framework" Retrieved 5. September, 2005

Walli, S. 2005, "Free and Open Source Licenses, Software Development and Distribution" Retrieved 30. April, 2006

Wheeler, D. A. 2005, "Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS, FLOSS, or FOSS)? Look at the Numbers! " Retrieved 3. April, 2006

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