IT buyers must demand open standards as balance of power shifts in their favour

The old cliché about open standards has never been truer – that the great thing about them is there are so many to choose from.

Look at the Wikipedia page on the topic, for example. It lists 20 different definitions of what an open standard is, and at least 30 different specifications all of which claim to be a definitive open standard in their field.

The history of IT is one of numerous attempts to get interested parties around a table and agree how to make stuff work together. Most often, such initiatives have floundered on the simple truth that most hardware and software manufacturers have little to gain from being genuinely open. Why make it easy for users to switch away from your products, or to plug in other companies’ products at the expense of your own?

Most standards that have achieved the necessary ubiquity have done so despite official attempts to formalise rather than because of them. The internet is the best example – while vendors spent years trying to agree international standards for networking, the rest of the world just got on and used internet protocol and it became the de facto standard.

Lack of standards leads only to single supplier dominance – the effective standard for PCs for 25 years has been Windows, and for all the benefits that has delivered, it still leaves many organisations locked into Microsoft.

The same is happening in the cloud today – Amazon Web Services has become the dominant player by building an ecosystem based on its technology and APIs. Azure and Google are playing catch-up – but with no interoperability between clouds. More than ever, users are demanding cloud standards to prevent a repeat of the past.

The IT4IT Forum set up by the likes of Shell and BP, along with Microsoft, HP and IBM, is another welcome user-led initiative but is hardly the first time this has been tried. But perhaps – hopefully – one thing is different now. The consumerisation of IT has shown how much innovation can be sparked by genuine interoperability – even if Apple and Android still exist in rival ecosystems, an app on one can still talk to the same app on another.

The digital revolution will be built on openness, not proprietary products. Any vendor that wants to succeed must genuinely play the open game.

Corporate users need to demand open interoperability – it is no longer enough for a vendor to say that it’s too complicated. The balance of power has shifted to IT buyers, and it’s time they told their suppliers to change.