UKOLN AHDS What Are Open Standards?


The use of open standards can help provide interoperability and maximise access to resources and services. However this raises two questions: "Why open standards?" and "What are open standards?".

Why Open Standards?

Open standards can provide several benefits:

What Are Open Standards?

The term "open standards" is ambiguous. As described in Wikipedia "There is no single definition and interpretations vary with usage" [1]. The EU's definition is [2]:

Some examples of recognised open standards bodies are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Examples Of Independent Standards Organisations
Standards Body Comments
W3C World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Responsible for the development of Web standards (recommendations). See <>. Relevant standards include HTML, XML, CSS, SMIL, SVG, etc.
IETF Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Responsible for the development of Internet standards (known as IETF RFCs). See list of IETF RFCs at <>. Relevant standards include HTTP, MIME, etc.
ISO International Organisation For Standardization (ISO). See <>. Relevant standards areas include character sets, networking, etc.
NISO National Information Standards Organization (NISO). See <>. Relevant standards include Z39.50.
IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). See <>.
ECMA ECMA International. Association responsible for standardisation of Information and Communication Technology Systems (such as JavaScript). See <>.


Other Types Of Standards

The term proprietary refers to formats which are owned by an organisation, group, etc. The term industry standard is often used to refer to a widely used proprietary standard. For example, the proprietary Microsoft Excel format is sometimes referred to as an industry standard for spreadsheets. To make matters even more confusing, the prefix is sometime omitted and MS Excel can be referred to as a standard.

To further confuse matters, companies which own proprietary formats may choose to make the specification freely available. Alternatively third parties may reverse engineer the specification and publish the specification. In addition tools which can view or create proprietary formats may be available on multiple platforms or as open source.

In all these cases, although there may appear to be no obvious barriers to use of the proprietary format, such formats should not be classed as open standards as they have not been approved by a neutral standards body. The organisation owning the format may chose to change the format or the usage conditions at any time. File formats in this category include Microsoft Office formats, Macromedia Flash and Java.


  1. Open Standard, Wikipedia, <>
  2. Open Standard: European Union definition, Wikipedia, <>