The idea of an independent organisation acting as a pressure group, setting up standards and ensuring that vendors stick to them and users know why they should buy them, sounds like a great idea. At least it did in the 70s and 80s when everyone needed information about open systems and vendors had to be pressurised not to take a proprietary route.
But that was then. The culture and atmosphere 10 years ago were different from those of today. Then, vendors gave in to the temptation to keep users locked in to their purchase by making sure that their system or data was incompatible with any other. Users rarely knew how or what to ask for to make sure their purchase was open.
The Open Group, the contemporary incarnation of various open systems pressure groups and bodies, could still have a crucial role to play as the guardian and evangeliser for standards today. Unfortunately, it still appears to be preoccupied with the ?Unix vs the rest? operating system battle which dominated the 80s. There is a crying need for a global body which independently sets, monitors and maintains standards, particularly for electronic commerce and the Web.
Today, any IT managers worth their salt understand about open systems and the dangers of proprietary lock-in. They know about the need to buy hardware and software that is compatible with industry standards and about creating data files which can be read by any and all hardware and software.
Although some vendors will still take the proprietary route if they can, because it ensures that their customers cannot go off and buy from anyone else later, they recognise the need to at least pay lip service to the open systems movement, and fall over backwards to profess compliance with open systems. Critics say that the Open Group has done its work and its useful life is now over.
But Simon Lofthouse of the Open Group maintains it still has a vital role to play. ?Certainly the fundamental raison d?etre has changed,? he says. ?The market has changed, but it is still necessary to have an independent body to establish and monitor standards.?
But this is the nub of the critics? argument against the Open Group. With all vendors scrambling over themselves to conform to de facto standards, is there really any need for a body setting de jure standards?
And how can the Open Group claim to represent the industry and open systems when it does not fully embrace Microsoft, the choice of a growing number of IT managers?
Allen Brown, chief operating officer of Open Group, takes the view that there are plenty of disparate systems around, and purchasing companies still need the information and backup that an independent open systems organisation can offer. ?Vendors won?t deliver truly open systems until customers demand them,? he says, and talks of IT managers persuading non-IT board directors to pressurise IT vendors to conform to vanilla open systems.
But Brown is reluctant to accept that Microsoft is widely recognised as an open systems vendor, although he is equally careful not to admit that it is proprietary. ?We have a position on that,? he says ?and it is that Unix is the only truly open and independent platform.?
That, according to Phil Flaxton of Uni Forum, is exactly the trap the Open Group is making for itself, falling into, and burying itself in up to its neck. ?There is most definitely still a need for education and information,? says Flaxton, ?but it is no longer appropriate for a standards body to demonstrate an obsession with Unix.?
What the industry needs today and for the next few years, he says, is a focus on the effects of the new IT on business.
?Microsoft is a member of Inter Forum,? says Flaxton, ?along with News International and some other major users and vendors. We have a far broader church than Open Group, and that is the right way for an industry body to be going.
?Our members include telcos and Internet service providers as well as users and IT vendors. Inter Forum will create the time and place for these companies to debate and discuss how network-centric computing and the Internet can and will affect business. That is far more relevant than a fixation with Unix.?
Flaxton adds that at a recent meeting of Uni Forum?s members, there was an overwhelming consensus that Inter Forum should not become involved with standards.
?Unlike some other bodies,? says Flaxton, ?we regularly stop and ask ourselves if we still have a mission and a role to play. If the answer was no we would not continue. But there is agreement among our members and that includes Microsoft, of what we should do and how we should proceed, to deliver what users and vendors want.?
Lofthouse agrees that it is essential to reflect users? concerns. That is why the Open Group is moving towards a focus on Internet, intranets and electronic commerce ? even though the group mainly consists of vendors which join for the marketing benefits.
?The main issue facing users is security and developing the Internet so that it can be used for commerce and business. That is a priority for us at the moment,? he says.
The Open Group, in the new guise of X/Open, publishes a single Unix documentation which provides a consistent look and feel for all Unix support literature, and holds the specifications for a common Unix programming foundation on which all approved versions of Unix are based. But despite the acknowledged need for an evolving development programme of standards, Open Group is not currently involved in actual research or development of Internet security protocols, nor protocols for other emerging technologies like intelligent agents.
According to Eric Leach, the UK?s representative of Object Management Group (OMG), which is responsible for Corba, the Open Group?s strength is as a testing and branding body, and it has been responsible for validating OMG?s Corba technologies. But a conflict of interest may emerge, and Leach suggests the Open Group may be stretched a standard too far in trying to manage Active X. ?We shall have to see how things work out,? he says cryptically.
The Open Group has recently appointed a new head, Joseph de Feo, who was previously in charge of IT operations at Barclays Bank and is well known as a Microsoft supporter. His influence is likely to radically change the face and mission of the Open Group, although exactly how remains to be seen.
Leach says: ?De Feo has been quoted as saying that OMG is irrelevant and that there are too many standards bodies.?
But as Leach points out, there has to be a balance between a multiplicity of standards-setters and too few companies controlling the protocols which are used. ?In a pluralist society there have to be strong bodies representing major interests, and objects represent the future of distributed computing. It is essential that object vendors and users have their own voice,? he says.
De Feo, who was not available for interview, still believes that there is a role for a body acting as guardian of open systems and setting new standards, despite evidence that the most robust standards are those already in widespread usage, not those dictated from a central organisation. He has said, in addressing users and IT managers: ?You need to build a value proposition for using open systems and don?t assume that everyone else will see the logic of what you are trying to do.?
But the evidence is that most board directors understand that any new purchase should conform to widely accepted standards rather than repeat any historical proprietary purchase.
De Feo has also said: ?Don?t be fooled by standards. People associate open systems with Unix, but that is wrong. Unix is just an example of the principles.?
Mike Briercliffe, a leading light in the open systems movement, and chairman of Uni Forum UK, believes that while the Open Group has a role to play as an independent testing and validation agency, it is in danger of losing its way.
Amid rumours that de Feo will run Open Group from the US, and with an affiliation between Uni Forum and Open Group being discussed in the US with little input or involvement from the UK, Briercliffe thinks the organisation is losing touch with its purpose.
He believes that too many Open Group members are fixated on Unix and the organisation is too hostile towards Microsoft for it to truly represent the user community.
The problem, he says, is largely one of resources.
?Open Group is massively funded because the vendor members pay millions to be in there, because it helps their marketing message, and Uni Forum is not able to charge user members a fraction of the fees,? he maintains.
?But a healthy climate needs a plurality of views and Uni Forum and Inter Forum are necessary to provide the right climate for the best standards to evolve and be adopted.?
It seems unlikely that Open Group will immediately accept that we live in an open systems world, but it is probable that it will go through some fairly dramatic changes in the next six months as it tries to juggle its role and successfully combine the vested interests of its members with a new face as director.
For true effectiveness it needs to have more user members, which is something that de Feo is likely to attempt to address. Otherwise, only time will reveal whether the Open Group is able to evolve and reinvent itself to confront the realities of the needs of users and the industry.
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