Of Estonia, Language, and Open Standards


In 1996, I was lucky enough to go to Helsinki to interview Linus for a feature in Wired. I was also unlucky enough to go a couple of days after his first daughter was born, so he was obviously mostly occupied elsewhere. Finding myself thus with some spare time, I decided to pop across the Gulf of Finland to the lovely medieval city of Tallinn, Estonia's capital. It was both geographically and culturally quite near – Estonian belongs to the same language group as Finnish.

That means that Estonian and English are very different, which might go some way to explaining this Estonian gentleman's problem with the word “open”:

You must understand that these open standard issues include an important element of sustainability, guarantees and also security, so we must have a balance between the openness and between the business continuity and security which is also quite important.

Well, no, actually. Open standards do not involve any additional security aspects over and above those involved in the use of proprietary standards. Indeed, given the atrocious security record of closed-source software using proprietary standards, it would be hard for software based on open standards and open source, say, to do any worse.

This kind of linguistic misunderstanding about the implications of openness wouldn't matter too much were it not for the fact that this particular Estonian is Siim Kallas, vice president of the European Commission: for someone so senior to have such a confused idea about what open standards involve, is potentially highly damaging for IT in Europe.

So, I have a proposal: if Mr Kallas would like to invite me back to the delightful Tallinn, I would be more than happy to have a word in his ear....

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