The Ariadne article on Lost in the JISC Information Environment has generated some interesting discussions, including my colleague Paul Walk’s post in which he suggests that all models are wrong, but some are useful and Andy’ Powell’s post entitled Lost in the JISC Information Environment?.

I’ll leave the discussions on the technical architecture to others, but thought I’d pick up on Andy’s comment that:

.. the technical standards certainly were intended to be prescriptive.  I can remember discussions in UKOLN about the relative merits of such an approach vs. a more ad hoc, open-ended and experimental one but I argued at the time that we wouldn’t build a coherent environment if we just let people do whatever the hell they wanted.  Maybe I was wrong?

Myself, Andy, Pete Johnston and Paul Miller were the ones who had those long discussions about the role of open standards and the JISC Information Environment (IE).  I was the person, who had been introduced to standards through my involvement with the Web from its early days, who was the most adamant on the need to use open standards, where open meant the standard had been ratified by a trusted neutral standards organisation, such as the W3C. I was therefore never in favour of standards and protocols which weren’t open in this sense, including Adobe’s PDF or Sun’s Java. On the other hand, I was always fairly relaxed about the technologies used to implement the services, not being too concerned if licensed software was felt to provide advantages over open source alternatives, for example.

It was Paul Miller who suggested than my stance on open standards was too inflexible, suggesting that there was a spectrum to openness, rather than a fixed binary divide. As a result of Paul’s comments and subsequent discussions in UKOLN I wrote a briefing document which suggested that rather than seeking a formal definition of open standards, we needed a more flexible approach based on an understanding of the characteristics of open standards.  And the need for such flexibility became even more apparent when the success of RSS had to be balanced against the lack of formal standardisation of RSS (both 1.0 and 2.0).

And in retrospect many of the W3C standards which I had felt should form the basis of the JISC IE have clearly failed to have any significant impact in the market place – compare, for example, the success of Macromedia’s Flash (SWF) format with the niche role that W3C’s SMIL format has.

Just as the open source debate seems to have matured (and I think that the JISC OSS Watch service has helped to move that debate from the polarised opinions we were seeing several years ago) we still need, I feel, to have a much more sophisticated understanding of the role open standards have to play in development activities. And, as with the decisions institutions (and individuals) have to make regarding their use of externally-hosted Web 2.0 services, so funders, developers and project managers will need to give more thought to the risks as well as the promised benefits of use of open standards.

I’ve written, in conjunction with staff from CETIS, OSS Watch and the AHDS, a number of peer-reviewed papers on this topics ( Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access, Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards, A Contextual Framework For Standards, A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes and Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites). I suspect it is time to revisit this topic.