Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Monday, August 27, 2007

The nice thing about standards…

…is there are so many to choose from, or so ran a sarcastic saying in the computer business back in the 80s and 90s. In information technology, standards are meant to define an official way of doing something so that software and hardware from different manufacturers will all work together.

Customers benefit from the competition that standards allow, and for real competition there needs to be a single open standard that all manufacturers can implement. We learned that lesson in the 1980s and brought the manufacturers to heel by requiring standards, and the explosion of personal computers and the Internet is the result. Unfortunately, it looks like the world might be about to go down the track of multiple incompatible standards again.

Back in the old mainframe days the big manufacturers made their hardware and software only work with computers from the same company, and often only from within the one line of computers from within the same company. As soon as a customer bought a machine from XYZ Ltd, they had to buy all their hardware and software from XYZ or it wouldn’t work together. In the language of the day, customers were locked-in by the computer vendors. And, of course, once they had hooked a customer, a manufacturer could charge what they liked, because the customer couldn’t go anywhere else. A modern comparison might be the computer that runs the engine in your car. Pray it never fails, because if it does you can only get a replacement from the manufacturer, and they will charge whatever they like.

Back when computers were big and massively expensive, only large companies and government departments could afford them. As customers realised how they were being locked in by vendors they started pressing for standards, which (of course) the vendors fought through a variety of means. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, after all.

But gradually the customers won. Standards were created and the big manufacturers started to falter. Some household names disappeared, and even the mighty IBM had a near-death experience. Other companies sprang up, comprised of people who weren’t opposed to open standards, and smaller and mid-sized computers started to become good enough to be useful. More and more companies and even individuals could afford machines and, because there was now a standard way of connecting them, these machines joined together to form the Internet. Programs written on machines from one manufacturer would work on machines from another, and so the independent software industry was born.

Wind the clock forward to the noughties. There’s another standards battle in town. Office software.

There are many suites of office software out there. They do useful everyday things like word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Microsoft Office and Open Office are probably the most famous, but there are at least a dozen different ones. Some are free and some are commercial. These suites have all tended to use different ways of saving documents, or file formats, so that files saved by one won’t open in another, or have to be imported and (sometimes) lose half their formatting in the process.

Over the last few years the world’s top international standards body, ISO, has officially adopted a standard for these files. It’s called ISO26300. It sets out the “officially correct” way of saving word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. That’s a good thing: it’s a way to keep the software manufacturers honest.

The problem is, that one office software manufacturer didn’t take part in the process that led to the ISO standard. That manufacturer is Microsoft, and now it wants its own standard. Not the standard that all versions of Microsoft Office used from 1995 to 2006, but a brand spanking new standard that Microsoft has dreamed up. And Microsoft is doing its damndest to get standards bodies around the world to vote for the new standard at ISO. If they succeed in enough countries, the world winds up back in the situation where we have multiple standards that don’t talk to each other, which is scarcely better than having no standard at all.

Microsoft says this is a matter of choice. But this is a file format, not a program – how many consumers actually care about which file format their program uses so long as it’s guaranteed to open in any program they might want to use? In fact, the choice consumers, companies, and the whole economy wants is to be able to choose a new word processing program without losing all the documents they have written to date. A single standard will make that happen. Manufacturers should be competing on the excellence of their programs, not on the file format.

Here in New Zealand, our standards body recently had a meeting to decide the New Zealand vote on whether the world needs another standard for word processing files. I went to the meeting – it was well-argued on both sides, courteous, and both sides got a lot of opportuntiy to put their points. We are waiting for the conclusion to be announced later this week.

As for whether the world needs two standards: it doesn’t – having two standards is nearly as bad as having none. And we already have one.

Disclosure – I was paid by Google to go to the meeting at StandardsNZ. That doesn’t change my views – I’ve been writing about the rights of consumers over technology companies for years.

posted by colin at 10:39 pm  

1 Comment

  1. […] to which New Zealand voted No, as did the rest of the world by a narrow margin. I’ve blogged about this […]

    Pingback by » Going to Geneva — 25 January 2008 @ 8:28 pm

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