Why accommodating open source at a standards body is like growing blueberries.
Fresh-from-the-bush blueberries are one of the good things of life. When I set up my home office about a decade ago, I had to install an underground conduit to supply essential services — power, water, network — and dug a deep trench all along the path that leads there. When I refilled the trench I decided to plant a blueberry hedge so looked into how to grow good blueberries.
The very best advice is clear. Blueberries are a fussy crop, and need just enough sun, clean water and the right amount of feeding. Most importantly they need acid soil – they will not crop in soil that’s too heavy or too alkaline. I filled the trench completely with ericaceous compost, so that unlike the rest of the garden that particular border would have light, clay-free, acid soil. They also need careful pruning – do it on to top of the bush or at the wrong time of the year and there’s no fruit. Finally they like nitrogen feeds and a dressing to keep the soil acidity just so – but not too much! When I get it right, from late June until early September, I can pick blueberries off the hedge for my breakfast nearly every morning.
I also love fragrant flowers, especially lilac, honeysuckle and lavender. They are the opposite of blueberries – they tolerate alkaline soil. So I plant them in different places, feed them differently and care for them in the way they need. Despite the fact honeysuckle grows berries after it has flowered, I don’t try to pretend they are blueberries — the red berries are actually poisonous — or need the same treatment. I found out the hard way that you can’t grow blueberries in the same conditions. But fortunately I can have different parts of our garden grow different plants. The special rules needed for blueberries don’t stop me growing fragrant flowers; they just mean I have to treat the crops differently. I’ve actually been able to train the honeysuckle along the path near the blueberry hedge — I get to enjoy both together.
So it is with open source software and open standards. Open source needs the right conditions, or there will be no fruit to complement the blooming open standards. Fortunately OSI has written an excellent “growers guide” for standards organisations, the “Open Standards Requirement for Software”. It explains the conditions needed for an open standard to be implementable under an open source license. A Standards Development Organisation (SDO) can readily set aside a special “bed” in which to grow open source, with the methods, membership conditions and patent rules and opt-outs that are needed to encourage a good crop, without interfering with the main crop. If an SDO wants to grow open source, it will set aside the space for it and create the conditions needed for it. OASIS did this in 2005 and has seen a fine crop ever since and has gone on to inspire others to cultivate open source. Accommodating open source at an SDO will require thoughtful cultivation, not forcing into the same space as other crops and cutting off the parts that don’t fit.
With thanks to Jamie Clark for the idea!