Kurt Cagle has a post entitled Open Standards and Organic Foods which begins

A question was posed to me recently concerning exactly what I meant when I talked about open standards, and how they differed from open source. In reviewing some of my previous postings, one of the things that I realized was that while I had offered up a number of definitions in passing, there really wasn't any single, stock answer that I or others had seen for what exactly open standards mean. Moreover, a lot of people tend to look at open standards with a somewhat jaundiced eye, as if it was simply one more marketing label in a field that is already way oversaturated with marketing buzzwords - they didn't understand why open standards were important, or they didn't understand the distinction between open source and open standards.

The software industry is now full of buzzwords and buzz phrases that are so ambiguous that if you ask five people what they mean you are likely to get ten different definitions. The problem this causes is that people often talk past each other even if they use the same words or even worse miscommunication occurs due to basic assumptions about the conversation which are incorrect. Examples of such ambiguous buzz phrases include; web 2.0, service oriented architecture and standards.

Some people I've talked to about this are surprised that I add 'standards' to this list. However the definition of what constitutes a 'standard' is in the eye of the beholder. About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Are Standards in the Software Industry a Chimera? which stated 

The word "standard' when it comes to software and computer technology is usually meaningless. Is something standard if it produced by a standards body but has no conformance tests (e.g. SQL)? What if it has conformance testing requirements but is owned by a single entity (e.g. Java)? What if it is just widely supported with no formal body behind it (e.g. RSS)?

For every one of the technologies mentioned above (RSS, Java, and SQL) you'll find people who will argue that they are standards and people who will argue that they aren't. SQL is produced by a standards body and has a number of formal specifications but since there is no conformance requirements most database vendors have embraced and extended it. It is difficult to write non-trivial SQL queries that will work across Microsoft's SQL Server, MySQL, Oracle's databases and IBM's DB2. The Java programming language and platform is supported by a number of vendors and has rigid conformance tests which make the statement "write once, run anywhere" true for the most part, however it is a proprietary technology primarily controlled by Sun Microsystems. Content syndication using RSS 0.9x/RSS 2.0 feeds is the most popular web service on the planet but the specifications were primarily authored and controlled by a single individual and have no formal standards body or corporation backing them till this day. In each case, the technology is 'standard' enough for there to be thriving markets around them with multiple vendors providing customers with valuable services.

From a customer perspective, standards are a means to an end and in this case the goal of standards is to prevent vendor lock-in. As long as users can choose between multiple RSS readers or developers can choose between multiple Java implementations, there is enough standardization for them. Where things become contentious is that there are multiple ways to get to the same solution (lack of lock-in).

"Open standards" are even more ambiguous since [as an industry] we don't even have a clear idea of what constitutes a standard. I read through Kurt Cagle's post and he never actually ends up defining "Open Standard" beyond providing analogies and rationales for why he believes in them. An interesting statement that Kurt makes in his post is the following

I suspect that in many ways the open standards movement is, at its core, a reaction to the rather virulent degenerate capitalism that exists today, in which a person can profit far out of proportion to the amount of work that they do, usually at the expense of many others who lose disproportionately to their work load.

The notion of 'profitting in proportion to your work' is pretty bogus and foreign to capitalism. Capitalism is all about the value of your work to others not how much work you put in. A minor league baseball player doesn't work an order of magnitude less than a major league baseball player yet he makes that much less. A multiplatinum recording artist doesn't work an order of magnitude harder than local bands trying to get big but makes that much more. It may not sound fair but that's capitalism. In recent centuries humans have experimented with other socio-economic movements that are more 'fair' but so far capitalism is what has stuck. </digression>

Anyway, my point is that buzz phrases like "standards", "service oriented architecture" and "web 2.0" have such diluted and ambiguous definitions to be effectively meaningless in technical discourse. People who've been in the industry for a while eventually learn to filter out these phrases [and often the people speaking them as well] when engaged in technical discourse. If you are a technical person you probably should be more explicit about what you mean by using phrases such as "freely implementable and patent unencumbered", "SOAP-based web services" and "AJAX powered website" in place of the aforementioned buzz phrases. Oh, and if they don't match up to what you mean when you use those statements then that just proves my point about the ambiguity of these buzz phrases.


Sunday, January 1, 2006 6:27:39 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Agree. A couple more points:
- The "open standards movement" on the Web was begun, and had its most successes, when companies such as Sun, IBM, Microsoft, and the late departed Netscape realized that they had more to gain by working together to "grow the pie" than to fight over how to carve it up into proprietary pieces. Many seem to have forgotten that W3C provided the venue for "capitalist" cooperation in the name of greater profits, it did not provide the "leadership" of a movement to undermine degenerate capitalism.
- It is somewhat bizarre to see evangelists from purely profit-driven companies wrap themselves in the "open standards are pure good, proprietary technology is evil" flag. Let's face it, there are different business models --if you sell services, it makes sense to keep the software cheap but confusing and badly in need of integration; if you sell software, it makes sense to make it work as well as possible out of the box and provide a wide range of pre-integrated products. Neither is good or evil, just different ways to make a buck.
- Anyone who bemoans the politics that keep "open standards" from reaching their full potential (e.g. many of the commentaries about recent events in Massachusetts) doesn't know much about the real standards process. It is political to its very core; standards are created, ratified, and established in reality by an extremely political process in which technical correctness / quality is a somewhat necessary but not at all sufficient condition.
Monday, January 2, 2006 2:38:31 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

Given that more than a few of my comments in the original piece were taken out of context, I'm not sure what exactly it is that you're agreeing or disagreeing with. I'm not going to try to answer Dare at this point, because I think he's setting up a straw man argument, but let me address the points that you've raised.

1) You are exactly correct in saying that a standard is a political construct. It is an agreement, largely by the primary players in a given sector, that it is better to achieve consensus in one area and profit from that which can be built upon that consensus than it is to contend too far down the stack - the Geneva Conventions, for instance, do not restrict war, something that is hopelessly naive, but simply place preconditions that try to keep such wars from making the region being fought over unfit for anyone (a variation of the "don't salt the fields, because they may eventually be YOUR fields" philosophy.

2) In certain sectors, proprietary standards make a great deal of sense. If a company is dealing with information that could compromise its internal security, then standardizing on formats within that company and keeping them proprietary makes sense. However, if oil companies, as an example, set a standard of behavior that is proprietary among them that directly affects the prices charged to consumers, then those companies effectively have an incredible degree of power to dictate the prices of good independently of market demands - if there is only one price in a region, no matter how inflated, then the consumer has no choice but pay that price. That's called collusion, and in general it is illegal.

The W3C started out as an organization in which there were a couple of dozen members, because they recognized that the Internet was rapidly fracturing under the stress of competitive pressures. Certainly, they had their own economic interests at heart, but those interests for the most part, if left unchecked, would have rendered the Internet useless, or worse, would have left it the vehicle of a single company. This did in fact happen for a while with Internet Explorer, but the rather astonishing popularity of Mozilla Firefox attests to the fact that this pendulum is swinging away from that single "standard".

I'm also not claiming that the W3C is perfect - I'm a member, I've seen a lot of the backstabbing, political infighting, spurious standards, and more that goes on there, and as an organization it is considerably less "democratic" than something like OASIS, which has enough players within it that there is an equilibrium that's been reached over time that doesn't strongly favor any one company unduly (you will likely quibble with this statement, of course, and with some justification, but I still think that of all of the "standards bodies" it's probably the most level).

The W3C was organized largely from those players that were in the browser space in 1993, largely because these were the ones that had the greatest interest and technical knowledge. The organization included a number of research universities and institutions (such as MIT, the University of Illinois, CERN, and Keio University in Japan) in addition to corporations, and the influence that they had was not insignificant. I would argue that your statement:

'Many seem to have forgotten that W3C provided the venue for "capitalist" cooperation in the name of greater profits, it did not provide the "leadership" of a movement to undermine degenerate capitalism.'

is misleading - the W3C did provide leadership in establishing the web as a place where both access to and publishing from the web could be accomplished without being beholden to any one platform or vendor - if that was not the case, then likely we would still be using clunky dumb terminal VB applications, and everyone, including Microsoft would have lost out.

3) I need to explain the term "degenerate capitalism", as its a shorthand term for a concept I've been playing with for a while and rather forgot I hadn't defined in my original talk. Capitalism by itself is neither good nor bad - like most economic systems, it is a mechanism for the distribution of power, largely through the denomination of value and the mechanisms by which that value can be accumulated or distributed. Capitalism as originally defined by Adam Smith (and as expanded upon by Alexander Hamilton) revolved around the notion that markets provided the most effective means by which the efforts of someone who was talented, skilled, and hard working could be rewarded for their efforts.

However, inherent within this is the notion that markets needed to be fundamentally free - that is to say, there should exist no mechanism that would make it possible for one company to prevent another company from participating in the market, because any company that had far broader access to resources also had the innate capability to keep any companies but the ones that it had an economic advantage in maintaining from participating in the market. Free market capitalism does not promise that all people will have the same returns from the market, it only promises that all participants will have the same access to those markets, provided that they have an adequate amount of capital to compete within the market in the first place.

Fast forward two centuries; in the US especially, but more generally in other places, corporations have huge advantages over individuals - a corporation has super-human rights ... it enjoys protections well above that afforded to individuals. While on rare occasion, a person (or even a much smaller corporation) can sue a large corporation and win, that individual needs incredible perseverence, extraordinarily deep pockets, and access to extraordinary legal competence. For the most part, the only real checks upon a company such as Microsoft come from the collective action of the government, or from class action lawsuits with thousands of claimants backed to a degree by government action. Even then, the ability of the government to enforce that action is limited, seemingly more every day, and in general the only real power that the government has is the fact that it too can take on the aspects of a corporation, though once this happens, the danger is that it can essentially be suborned as a corporation.

Degenerate capitalism, then is capitalism in which the checks and balances that keep companies from wielding undue influence in the marketplace are removed (i.e., the government, that which governs or controls the actions of the collective corporate space, essentially ceases to work). The term degeneracy here I'm pulling from the analogy with stars, where a degenerate star is one where the ordinary balance between gravity and radiative pressure has collapsed.

I do not think that we are at a point yet where these checks and balances are irrevocably destroyed, but at this stage the markets are seeking an equilibrium point that is far more favorable to large corporate interests than they are to small ones, disproportionate to the number of people working within that corporation or the products being produced. Going back to Dare's comment, I'd actually contend that there IS something fundamentally wrong with a system where kids ARE paid millions of dollars to hit balls with bats or to sing pretty songs while others are paid a thousandth of that to charge in front of bullets and risk their lives.

Having said that, I agree with your contention now, just as I did at the Atlanta XML conference, that the issue in Massachusetts is not an issue of letting "open standards" reach their full potential. Personally, I think that both ODF and the Microsoft XML formats should have been considered on their merits. However, what I'm hearing now, through some reliable sources, is that this process has been filled with its share of intimidation, "grass-root" groups funded by Microsoft, "impartial" studies produced with Microsoft money and so forth. That may be "politics", but if it is then it tells me just how serious corruptt politics has become.

Going back to the contentions of my article - there were economic interests on both sides of the table in the organic standards battle, but one side essentially tried to use a dominant position in the industry to keep the other side from even participating. I'm not trying to paint this as a good vs. evil type of thing - there are some real loons on the organic side, and I come from a family of farmers that have seen both the advantages and disadvantages of both sides.

Similarly, I think that there are many things which companies such as Microsoft do that are important, even critical in this industry, and technology would be poorer for the company not existing. However, there are times when Microsoft becomes so wrapped up in its own immediate short-sighted goal of maintaining a monopoly (one that it vehemently denies, of course) and making a profit that it sometimes fails to recognize when there are times where it is advantageous for it to give a little to gain a longer time strategic position. Open Office, KOffice, and others continue to grow in marketshare at this stage precisely because the things that MS Office have become commoditized - the technological hurdles in creating and distributing an office suite has dropped below a critical threshold, and where there are now a handful of vendors that could produce something with the 80-90% functionality that can satisfy the majority of the population, there will be hundreds within the next few years.

By choosing to align with a "more" neutral format (in this industry, as you point out, there are never any completely neutral parties), you can basically start concentrating on creating the value-adds that will come from a world-wide common format, especially as others are beginning to recognize that they can in fact lock Microsoft out of markets that it thought it owned.

Even if the Microsoft XML format prevailed, you will have essentially added only a few months to the time before Microsoft would be unable to capitalize on the differential in formats, because others would simply utilize that format to build their own products and otherwise be completely independent of Microsoft; should you switch formats at some later point, you'll be dealing with a legacy problem that makes supporting Windows 98 a cakewalk in comparison.

Mike, this is an end-game move. Microsoft has managed to maintain Office in large part because it has been able to take advantage of the fact that it also controls the operating system and can change it in a completely opaque fashion - this is not to say that Office is not a very well designed product (I think it is better than OOo, though not by a huge margin anymore) but that it is disingenuous to say that the ability to lock in on a format has not contributed significantly to its repeated sales. Once Office moves to XML, though, this advantage gets lost, and Office will have to compete only using a multibillion dollar advertising budget, draconian distribution contracts and to a certain extent upon its own merits against a product that is created largely by hobbyists. By continuing to push against a collective, mutually agreed upon standard for XML desktop publishing documents, Microsoft only makes itself look worse in the eyes of other governments that already have reason to distrust the company.

On the other hand, should Microsoft back off and embrace ODF, then it will indicate to many governments and corporations that are looking at vendor-lockin as being a serious IT issue that Microsoft is responsive to this perception, likely gaining far more customers that it will otherwise lose for being seen as intent to isolate itself at a time when the rest of the industry is moving towards increased communications.

-- Kurt
Monday, January 2, 2006 7:03:30 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Perhaps this is the wrong place to bring it up, but I think that the EDI "standards" may have relevance to the discussion. First, there is a long history. Second, for a time this was a closed standard with a set number of players providing connections for the data. Third, it has been brought into the modern world with a transformation to XML. I was a spectator on that scene for only a short time, but I am still interested on how you percieve the trends and what that might indicate for later efforts.
Monday, January 2, 2006 8:59:16 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I'm not going to comment on the ODF/office XML thing as that's a subject for another time.

What I do want to do is strongly agree about standards without tests being meaningless. But here is the problem: architects dont write tests, they do WSDL+XSD and leave testing to the outsourced team in a different TZ. Visual Studio 2005 is a case in point: the architects dont even get the test tools.

As a result, "standards" come in two forms. Reverse engineered from implementations (office XML, Apache Ant, Junit API), or committee-designed, the supposedly better/cleaner approach. And the latter lacks any tests, by default. Testing is left to the implementation teams, interop left to other groups, plugfests and recrimination sessions. Also, without thinking about tests at the beginning, there is a risk that you spec something untestable.

This is completely at odds with modern test-driven development, and has led us to WS-Addressing, WS-Resource Framework, WS-Notification and other rushed-out, incompletely specified 'standards' where the chance of interop is low.

Test-driven standards, that's the future: http://cvs.sourceforge.net/viewcvs.py/*checkout*/deployment/deployment/doc/steve/test_driven_standards.doc

the test suite hosted on an open SCM repository, maintainable by all active dev teams, a shared test runner with public results used as the sole way to declare compliance. And with OSS implementations, Apache Gump runs those compliance tests every day...

Tuesday, January 3, 2006 5:40:35 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Hi Kurt,

Thanks for the clarification about "degenerate capitalism," and it is now pretty clear that we have roughly the same view of the standards process. I guess the basic disagreement is "Microsoft has managed to maintain Office in large part because it has been able to take advantage of the fact that it also controls the operating system and can change it in a completely opaque fashion." That might well have been true in the Bad Ol' Days of the '90s but misses a couple of important facts: First, Office has increasingly supported "open" formats: HTML, originally in a pretty ugly and non-portable form, increasingly something that can render a document with reasonable fidelity in any browser; and XML, first with the option to save in a MS-defined schema or a custom-defined schema, and soon the default format will be XML. Most of the real-world problems of document archive preservation and software neutrality brought up in the Massachusetts debate were *anticipated* by the Office team years ago, and they have provided a range of options to prevent them. Between those options, and the immense third-party market for products and tools that can read the old binary format, anyone who needs to extract data from a proprietary Word document to a more standard format is quite capable of doing so, whatever happens in Office 12 or with ECMA. Second, *market* pressure keeps MS from changing the proprietary formats in an arbitrary / opaque fashion far more effectively than any government procurement regulation could hope to. Scoff if you wish, but I know that backwards-compatibility concerns and complaints dominate what I do in my day job.

I suspect [disclaimer: I have NOTHING to do with Office planning] that Office will support ODF when it *earns* the right by virtue of being an interoperable de-facto standard with real market demand. There are a number of MS Office competitors subsidized by companies such as Sun and IBM, so I don't buy the "no level playing field" argument by those who think this is an unreasonable demand.

Finally, OASIS already recognizes DocBook and DITA as document format standards; does anyone think that MS Office, OpenOffice, or other office suites must support those formats simply because OASIS says so?
Friday, June 16, 2006 9:24:10 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
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