Brief Glossary of IT Terms

Published May 1, 2007

What do they mean when they say “Open?”

The language of IT is confusing even for veterans of the industry. Definitions can vary depending on who one talks to. What’s critical, however, is that legislation that aims to tackle IT procurement in state government is clear. Here are capsule definitions to help sort out the phraseology.

Open Source

Open source software exists in the public domain and, in most cases, is available for free. It permits users to study, change, and improve the underlying source code and then redistribute it. It is often developed in a public, collaborative manner.

The Linux operating system is the best-known example. Companies such as IBM, Sun, Red Hat, and Linux VA market open source software in conjunction with large-scale IT consulting contracts that provide enterprises and governments with regular updates and improvements as they emerge from the programming community.

Open Standard

An open standard is a publicly available specification that any manufacturer may use to create a product with the aim of fostering compatibility with other hardware or software designed to that standard.

The industry itself is divided over whether the definition of open standard includes that it be royalty-free. Some laws, such as Minnesota’s, equate the two.

In reality, it’s more complicated. For example, the GSM digital cellular format is an open standard, yet there is a royalty for its use. On the other hand, use of Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) is royalty-free, but the format has not yet been designated an open standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

OpenDocument Format (ODF)

ODF has been designated an open standard by the ISO. It defines a format for word processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. It is used in office applications software that is available for free, such as, or for purchase, such as Sun’s StarOffice.

Software using ODF competes directly with Microsoft Office, which uses proprietary document formats. Unlike current Microsoft formats, ODF is based on the Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML), which gives it an ability to work with numerous types of operating systems and other software–a chief reason states want to use ODF for long-term document storage.

Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML)

XML is a mark-up language used to identify and structure embedded information in electronic documents.

XML is a “meta-language” that users don’t see but computers do. It contains rules and instructions regarding how embedded code works within the document and with any other software related to it.

XML has been designated an open standard by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). XML is also the basis for Microsoft’s new file format, Open XML, which has been declared an open standard by the ECMA (formerly the European Computer Manufacturers Association) and has been submitted to the ISO for standardization recognition.

Steven Titch