Open vs. Closed Standards

The Internet as we know it today got its start in the early 1960s as a US Department of Defense project known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). For the next 20 years, ARPANET was privately operated by the US military and its use was limited exclusively to government and military applications. Only in the 1980s did the network open up to civilian uses and transition to the free and open Internet that we know today.

Together, the ARPANET and Internet provide excellent examples of the differences between closed and open systems. Closed platforms are often referred to as being “proprietary” because they are owned, managed, and operated by a single owner or proprietor. While that owner might choose to allow others to access and use their platform, they still maintain final control over the system, how it is used, and how it evolves. Open platforms, however, do not have a single owner calling the shots. Instead, they might have a centralized committee of interested partners to coordinate and manage the development and growth of the platform.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but the ultimate choice of whether a platform should be open or closed comes down to the goals that drive the development of the system. In the case of ARPANET, the US military had ample government funding to build and operate the network as well as the need for a secure and reliable means of maintaining communication in the event of a nuclear attack. As such, it was their system that they built with their own funds and for their own needs, so they kept it to themselves (i.e., a closed network). By the 1980s, the technological and economic advantages of making a global electronic network available to the commercial market merited opening up the network to more civilian uses by business and individuals.

Open

Open source and licensing of software and and web content raise legal and ethical concerns. Open source code is code that is publicly available for anyone. Unlike Apple’s super secret source code for Mac OS X, open source software allows programmers to view, reuse, and remix the source code for individual use. Though this source code is generally publically available, there are still rules that govern its use (or reuse). Like using any material that you have not created, you must abide by the terms and conditions of use. Typically these terms can be found close to the source code or provided in commented form within the program.

Email and web publishing are both examples of open platforms that have been created around open standards. Any developer can create an email application that conforms to the various standards for handling email (SMTP, POP, IMAP). The program can then send email to and receive email from any other email user anywhere on the Internet no matter which email client (program) they might be using. Without these open standards, there would be no guarantee that any message that you write and send would be compatible with the software being used by your intended recipient. But with these standards, all emails created by any standards-compliant email client are guaranteed to be fully compatible with all other such clients, thus enabling the global communications system that we have come to rely on. Open standards also allow us to ensure cryptography is secure for Internet encryption. Nataraj Nagaratnam, IBM Distinguished Engineer, explains how these open standards reinforce security.

Closed

While services like Facebook and Twitter might be publicly available and free to use, they are still closed, proprietary systems. Each company controls the data that they store and strictly regulates how that data can be accessed and modified by its users. For example, users cannot easily transport their tweets, status messages, comments, chat histories, or friends lists to other competing services. Similarly, the ability to integrate these services into other, third-party apps or sites is strictly limited to what Facebook or Twitter choose to allow. Having this level of control over their platform gives each company the ability to more reliably build, develop, and monetize their platform, but it comes at the expense of user choice and compatibility.