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Open Standards Matter

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Rodolfo M. Raya (
Chief Technical Officer, Maxprograms


What is an Open Standard?

An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and has various rights to use associated with it, and may also have various properties of how it was designed (e.g. open process). There is no single definition and interpretations vary with usage.

There are many possible definitions of Open Standard. The concept that matters for this article is the idea of a clearly defined format for digital data, described in a specification document that is available to everyone.

We use open standards every day. If you are reading this article in a web browser, then you are looking at the HTML version of this text. HTML is a format for content intended to be distributed on the Internet. HTML is an Open Standard maintained by W3C that anyone can use.

The specifications that define some standards are free, like the specifications of HTML for example, while others are available for a price, as some of the standards published by ISO, the International Organization for Standardization.

It shouldn't matter if an open standard is available for free or for a fee. What makes a standard an open standard for the context of this article is the availability of the documentation that defines it.

Standards and Customizations

If a document format is based on an open standard, anyone can write tools that use that format. This is great because it may give you the option to use different tools in your workflow.

Sometimes companies find that a chosen standard lacks features they need in their products. When this happens, they have these options:

  • Adapt the product to work with just what the standard offers.
  • Join the body that defined the standards and propose changes for future versions.
  • Customize the document format, adapting it to their own needs.

Some standards contemplate that tool developers or end users may need to customize the data. Instructions for adapting the standard while maintaining compliance are included in the specification document of extensible formats.

Extensibility can be enabled in different ways. Two different approaches:

  • DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture). Every element that you add to a DITA-based framework should contain a special attribute (@class) that provides a fallback mechanism for tools that don't know how to handle the addition. Any good DITA tool can handle well-designed extensions.
  • XLIFF (XML Localisation Interchange File Format). XLIFF provides a good set of elements to use in localization projects and allows the use of custom ones in predefined places. Tool developers can add new elements and attributes in their applications but no fallback mechanism lets other tools handle the new markup. Allowing proprietary extensions without a safety net generated interoperability problems between users of different tools, issues that had to be mitigated by tool vendors using reverse engineering.

Your Data Matters

A very important reason for choosing open standards is the ability to exchange documents with other people. If you share open standard compliant files with service providers, you don't need to care about tools.

Different tools may treat the same documents in different ways. Nevertheless, if the format of the document is well specified and the tools are built to comply, those differences are usually minor.

Take a Microsoft Word document in .docx format created on Windows and open it in Office for Mac. There may be differences in fonts, but the text will still be there.

Open the same web page using different browsers and there may be small differences in the text display. However, if the web page uses custom JavaScript code or very detailed CSS styling, the differences may be important. Deviating from plain HTML standard has a price: some browsers may not be able to display the content as intended.

Publish a DITA map as PDF using the DITA Open Toolkit and you will get a file that looks different to a PDF generated with DITA Converter. Generate Web Help from the DITA map using <oXygen/> and it will look slightly different from the Web Help generated by Conversa. The default styling is different in the mentioned tools but rendered content is the same. As DITA is an open standard, you have choices for publishing if your customizations follow established best practices.

Almost all translation tools support plain XLIFF files. Send an XLIFF file without proprietary extensions to a Language Service Provider (LSP) and you should be able to receive a reusable translated XLIFF document. If you use a tool that adds custom extensions to your XLIFF files, your choices of LSP becomes limited to those that have your custom tool.

The Future of your Data

TMX (Translation Memory eXchange) is an open standard that doesn't allow customization. This XML-based standard is supported by all translation tools and is very effective for exchanging data between different applications. LISA (Localisation Industry Standards Association), the body that created TMX, disappeared a few years ago but TMX remains in use and very good shape. TMX is alive because it is useful and is not tied to one vendor or tool. Anyone can write tools that handle TMX files.

TMX survived its creators. Can your data and tools resist the changes that come with progress?

Microsoft declared the end of support for Windows XP after 12 years of providing maintenance updates. Many companies are still using XP because they depend on applications that couldn't be upgraded to run in newer versions of Windows.

Apple adopted Intel processors a few years ago and does not support software written for the PowerPC architecture used before. Many useful applications became obsolete with the change. Later, Apple stopped using 32-bit processors and switched to 64-bit ones, leaving more software behind.

Your software may not stand the changes in hardware or operating systems, but your data doesn't have to stop migration to newer equipment or tools. Good open standards are not tied to a specific operating system, device or application. Keep these facts in mind when adopting new technologies.


Open standards define data formats, processes and protocols that are used in diverse industries. If you create or transform digital content, your tools mark your relationships with digital open standards. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Try to use tools that support open formats.
  • When selecting a data format, make sure that several tools that can handle it. Avoid being locked to one vendor.
  • Simplify your data exchange with colleagues or service providers avoiding proprietary customizations whenever possible.

About the author

Rodolfo M. Raya

Rodolfo Raya is Maxprograms' CTO (Chief Technical Officer), where he develops multi-platform translation/localisation and content publishing tools using XML and Java technology. He can be reached at