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There are a bunch of standards out there. Which should you use? 

Let’s chat about standards before getting into what you should and shouldn’t use. 

Standards. They’re really just a collection of rules.

Think of the rules that apply to soccer, traffic, or food safety. These are standards by which the people within these systems need to operate. 

In soccer, you can’t touch the ball with your hands. That’s a common rule that’s understood across the world (unless you’re Luis Suarez playing Ghana in the 2010 World Cup). Anyhow, it keeps the game of soccer hands-free wherever it’s played. 

For content professionals, a standard is the rules that inform how you build, manage, and deploy structured content. Standards are the guidelines by which your structured content must abide. 

In another article, we talk about several different documentation standards and set them astride one another competitively for your analysis: What Is The Best Standard For Documentation? 

 

What Makes a Standard “Open”?

Simply put, an open standard is not owned by a business or person. 

Open standards are built with communities and collaboration in mind. For instance, DITA is an open standard that’s managed by OASIS, an international organization in charge of numerous open-source projects across the technical spectrum. 

Because they’re not owned, open standards aren’t motivated by profits or any other private, financial incentive. Nor are open standards product dependent. 

Of course, companies may use open standards as the basis for their own products, but products born from an open standard don’t determine the evolution of the standard itself. 

Basically, if someone invented a hybridized soccer sport that became wildly popular, it wouldn’t force change to the rules of soccer itself merely because of its popularity or success. In the same way, easyDITA uses the DITA standard, but our software could disappear tomorrow and the DITA standard would still exist unchanged.

I like to say that open standards allow anyone to play, but make sure that every player abides by the same overarching rules. 

 

The Big Differences

What does all this matter? Good question. There are some key differences that give open standards an edge over other “closed” standards. 

 

Longevity

You might’ve noticed that open standards are built to last. They don’t change often and there are typically established guidelines for how updates are implemented to ensure that the standard remains foundationally sturdy. 

If you’re working within an open standard and try to make some personal tweaks that don’t end up working, you’re not going to break the foundation of the standard itself. Conversely, if you develop something that makes the standard better, you can share this with the user community and you may become one of the few who contribute to the progressive evolution of the standard in future updates. 

Open standards are meant to encourage organizations to use them to their advantage and contribute to the community that shares that standard. 

 

Interoperability

When a piece of software is owned by an organization, we call it proprietary. When an organization owns something, we buy it, then we’re forced to play by the rules that it wrote. 

When an open standard is managed by a group of interested parties not driven by product or profit, the goals are different. There is trust that is predicated on the longevity of the standard. With DITA XML, for instance, there is broad adoption across the technical communication landscape and that broad adoption leads to more opportunity for interoperability between vendors, users, and integrations.  

 

Consistency

Longevity, interoperability, and consistency walk hand-in-hand. For things to last a long time and be universally useful, they have to have consistent foundations. When we look at the DITA standard, there have only been a handful of changes since its inception in 2001. The changes made to the standard have been to accommodate the ever-changing technological landscape it has to exist in.

The whole idea of standardization, open though it may be, is to set a baseline of consistency to which everyone must adhere. It’s this foundational consistency that makes an open standard a wise choice. An open standard looks out for the community that uses and contributes to it.

 

Standards for Your Organization

Open standards are an ideal place to start any foray into standardizing content in your organization. Why? Because they’ve long stood the test of time. There’s something to be said about a content development standard that’s been accepted worldwide and is monitored globally by parties looking after because they have faith in it. 

An open standard, like DITA, provides an excellent foundation upon which your organization can cultivate a diverse, robust library of content. If you prioritize the long term relevance of your content, using an open standard is the best choice. 

From there, you’ll have sturdy ground to build up from. 

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Tim Ludwig
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