Just how open is the OpenTravel Alliance?
And, how much free stuff can a not-for-profit standards' body give away while remaining independent and, well, open for business?
These questions were batted around a bit on Twitter -- and likely elsewhere -- as OpenTravel earlier this week introduced the OpenTravel Forum.
The forum, built on thephpBB platform, is designed as a resource for people implementing OpenTravel schema in the hospitality, transport, travel services, and tours and activities realms, and is moderated during work hours by Bonnie Lowell, the OpenTravel specifications manager and a former Starwood exec.
The forum -- accessible to members and non-members to varying degrees -- should be useful for developers who wake up in the middle of the night and wonder: "What is the difference between OTA_CommonTypes.xsd and FS_OTA_CommonTypes.xsd?"
If you have these sorts of dreams -- as opposed to visions of strapping young men or Sports Illustrated swimsuit models -- then the OpenTravel forum may be just the right fix for you.
OpenTravel pledges that Lowell usually will crank out her answers to such specifications or implementation questions within 24 hours.
OpenTravel's new phpBB-based forum replaces a now-inactive forum which used a Google groups template. It was abandoned because the platform lacked robust user profiles, threads and moderation capabilities.
But with the launch of the forum came criticism on Twitter from people such as David Janes and Wilfred Springer, who basically questioned whether OpenTravel really is an open organization if some of its implementation materials are available to members-only.
So, in the scheme of things, here are some of the core issues:
Anyone -- members and non-members alike -- can download for free OpenTravel schema, including "XML files, XSD files, a 700+ page users' guide, the full code table, flattened schema files and our best practices document, explaining how and why we structure our XML schema the way we do," says OpenTravel Executive Director Valyn Perini.
However, membership -- as opposed to non-membership, of course -- gives companies and their employees the right to participate in OpenTravel working groups, and access to the specifications manager, the OpenTravel wiki and Implementation Guide, among other perks.
In addition, while members can roam the forum at will, non-members have more limited functionality available and can only access five of the 11 discussion boards.
For example, while non-members can access discussion boards on implementation and documentation, only members can access some of the meat and bones -- i.e. discussion boards on architecture, hospitality, transport, travel services, and tours and activities.
Much of the debate on OpenTravel's openness hinges on whether the schema can be implemented without complete access to the members' only Implementation Guide.
This is what David Janes, cofounder of Discover Anywhere Mobile, has to say about the issue:
"I don't think OpenTravel fully meets the definition of open, in the 'open source' sense of the word because 'the end-product (and source-material) available at no cost to the public' condition is not met.
"Yes, OpenTravel makes XSDs available and these XSDs are well-annotated with documentation. This is a good thing, but not in and of itself to be sufficient. XSDs still don't really tell you how to use the data. It's the difference between having a dictionary and knowing a language.
"If one was to try to implement an OpenTravel compliant application from the XSDs, it seems highly unlikely you would be able to do so without a fair bit of reverse engineering against an existing working implementation. Specs are complicated things, and all the 'this is what we really mean'/'this is what it really does stuff is very different than a just list of data types."
Perini counters that OpenTravel indeed meets any definition of open source because the source material is available to anyone for free.
Perini points out that the Message Users Guide, which comes with the schema downloads, provides a user example for each message.
"The sucker is currently 773 pages," Perini quips. "it's a phone book."
Also, there have been some 50,000 downloads of the schema since 2001, and the Implementation Guide was only first published in 2007, so there were many implementations without the members-only guide, she adds.
And, Stephen Joyce
, co-chair of OpenTravel and CEO of Sentias, concurs with Perini that OpenTravel meets open source criteria and that its schema can be implemented without the members-only Implementation Guide.
"From a technologist's standpoint, implementing based on specifications is not particularly hard. The Implementation Guide is a value-add which will help to speed up the implementation of the specifications. So yes, it is open, because the base specifications are readily available (and in fact have been implemented by many non-members).
"It's a classic freemium model. Give away the specifications but charge for some tools to help make it easier. We've [Sentias/Rezgo] implemented dozens of different XML schemas for travel companies in the past, most without any form of implementation guide. Not OpenTravel message schemas, I'm talking proprietary XML APIs, which are often more difficult because they are completely custom to the company."
When informed that the users guide comes with the free downloads, Janes concedes that OpenTravel is "technically correct" that the schemas can be implemented with the data available to non-members, but says implementation wouldn't be easy.
"I have enough experience in trying to implement specs to say that it will in fact be hard, hard to the point of being basically impractical beyond the point where you might as well pay for membership," Janes says.
Meanwhile, Jim Davidson, the CEO of Farelogix, which offers an open source download of its Hawkeye desktop, seems to question OpenTravel's open source credentials, although he conceded he was unfamiliar with details about the new forum.
"It seems that once you put any restrictions on something that is supposedly 'open' you are no longer open-- members or not," Davidson says.
Au contraire, says Perini.
"It goes back to the concept of source material," Perini says. "Our schema and supporting docs are free to anyone. Reference materials, etc. are not required for a successful implementation, so aren't free."
Punctuating the point, Perini adds: "We use the same model as almost all standards' bodies. Open doesn't mean completely free."
Perini notes that the issue of how standards bodies get funded can be sticky.
"You don't want a single sponsor (lack of neutrality); small companies have a hard time participating (dollars or developers) so the big companies tend to carry the load," Perini says. "In some cases, small companies expect the big companies to carry the load, then get unhappy when the big companies get member benefits but small companies (as non-members) don't."
OpenTravel wants to be perceived as neutral and doesn't have -- or want -- a "sugar daddy," Perini says.
She adds: "Like any business, we have to provide value to our customers (members) by providing them useful and desirable tools and services."
Meanwhile, both members and non-members apparently are finding some value in the organizations' services even as the debate about standards organizations and open source undoubtedly will continue.
In that regard, in the first couple of days since the forum's launch, registrations came in from 56 people -- 20 members and 36 nonmembers.
[Full disclosure: Perini and Joyce are Tnooz nodes
, and a feed of Tnooz stories appears on the OpenTravel Forum page.]