Don't sacrifice innovation in push for standards

Don't sacrifice innovation in push for standards

Summary: The problem is that "standards" are often the result of compromise between competing demands. This lowest common denominator approach is generally cost-effective but not always satisfactory.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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David Berlind oversimplifies the issue of multiple standards in "When two standards are better than one."

While it is certainly true that having a single standard -- which is available to all developers -- offers the consumer the lowest cost option, and usually a myriad of choices for software vendors, this is not always what the consumer really wants, or needs, or might want -- given the option to choose based upon some criteria other than price. The problem is that "standards" are often the result of compromise between competing demands. This lowest common denominator approach is generally cost-effective but not always satisfactory.

EBCIDIC (from IBM) predated ASCII but was based upon Vendors need an incentive to build a better mousetrap. punched card character layouts and was surpassed by ASCII when teletype services came on the scene. TXT file format is the direct descendant of ASCII and survives to this day, yet it is no longer widely used as a document format, nor is its direct descendent, RTF. Instead, the Microsoft DOC file format is today the "de facto standard" (although Corel -- and apparently many an attorney -- would argue that the WordPerfect format is superior.)

More often than not, the marketplace establishes a "de facto standard" regardless of whether or not that standard offers the kind of interoperability (or even performance) that consumers deserve for their hard-earned dollar. The VHS/BetaMAX example is a good one. Despite the fact that BetaMAX was a technically superior format, it failed in the marketplace, arguably due to marketing blunders more than any other factor. Yet both VHS and BetaMAX were invented by overlapping consortia of competing vendors.

Before the breakup of AT&T into seven constituent Regional Bell Operating Companies (of which there are now only three) all we had was POTS (plain old telephone service). It wasn't fancy -- nor was long-distance a commodity which many could afford, but it was ubiquitous -- and those with limited needs, and budgets, could afford the limited service it provided.

Today, anyone with a limited budget pays triple for baseline telephone service and pays fees for long distance services they may never use. And just try to find a working public telephone. Still, most would agree that the divestiture of AT&T into its constituent parts opened the door for competition and choice. The result was the virtual disappearance of per-minute long distance charges -- except for those who can least afford to pay per-minute rates.

Cellular providers now compete for your telephone service at national prepaid rates comparable to local service rates. Yes, there is confusion between CDMA, GSM, and iDEN -- but there is also choice. Those for whom international service is important choose GSM. Why? Because GSM was created by a standards body whose goal was to provide global cellular voice service. Just the same, CDMA and iDEN are not going away tomorrow because those that value high speed data access more than they value global voice service want to leverage the throughput available today only on those networks. Some choose their cellular provider based upon customer service, others make their choice based upon voice or data coverage, and still others base their choice solely on price.

Should there be standards? Of course -- because fostering interoperability means more competition and thus it is in the consumer's best interest. Nevertheless, if interoperability means settling for inferior service in exchange for commodity pricing, one must think long and hard before giving up technologically superior solutions.

Whether the prevailing standard is "de facto" or not, vendors need to be encouraged to innovate. Innovation leads to new standards and broader choice -- one not just based upon price. Vendors need to have an incentive to build a better mousetrap. We cannot let the need for standards outweigh the need for innovation.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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14 comments
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  • You expect innovation from Microsoft????

    gimme a break!
    mgardner
    • Not necessarily ...

      What I said was that the MS DOC format is a "de facto" standard -- as evidenced by the fact that 90%+ of the world's desktops are running Office. It is not necessarily a technically superior solution.

      Some argue that Corel's WP format is technically superior. Remember, the WP format was once king of the hill! MS maybe at the top now but they won't be there forever.

      The point is that the user should have a choice. Standards for standards sake is shortsighted if selecting that standard means that you have to give up something you need/want to do so.

      People still buy WordPerfect even though it is NO LONGER the "de facto" standard it once was.

      Word processors utilizing the RTF format are cheap or free but they no longer meet everyone's needs.

      A vendor's decision to support OpenDOC, or MS DOC, or Corel WP is based upon more than just standards, or technical superiority -- or even price.

      Similarly, the end-user's decision whether to buy Office, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice is not based just on standards, or price, or technical superiority, or even what his neighbor next door uses.

      In the end, Microsoft's competitors want there to be a "standard" non-MS document format that they can support in hopes of taking market share from MS. More power to them.

      All I am saying is that price is not the only issue. Standards are fine as long as they meet users' but users must be free to choose solutions which meet their needs. Even if those solutions are only available from one vendor.

      Vendor's need to be able to distinguish their products from other vendor's products. Customer's will determine which features are most important.
      M Wagner
      • Not Really.....

        Might be a commonly held myth, but once people thought the world was flat too.

        While MS Windows & Office definitely is on the vast majority of "PC's". I doubt Windows is on 90% of the worlds PC's, (the evidence is anecdotal not empirical) while it might not be that far away I would bet dollars to donuts they error on the high side. 90%+ sounds much better than 86.3 or whatever....

        Either way MS Office is not on every Windows machine, and there are many alternatives on Windows that may better serve the general market.

        Yes the corporate & enterprise world is different and would be a much higher percentage but it may not even be 90% there. As there are others there as well, Groupwise, Lotus etc.

        Then stop and consider how really ubiquitous real standards are, and how people use computers everyday..... I would even hazard a guess that there is far more data/documents & interaction being done every second with text, html/xml & pdf then any MS format.

        My feeling is that de facto standards exist outside of whatever the dominate product may be at this moment in time. Standards are the main feature, and if they cannot innovate, contribute or particpate without segmenting the market or creating lock-in they are of little real value or benefit.......
        LazLong
  • Overlooked

    From the article:
    "Instead, the Microsoft DOC file format is today the "de facto standard"

    You failed to explore WHY .doc is the "defacto standard". An examination of why it is would contradict the point your have tried to make with your story.

    Is .doc the "defacto standard" because MS Office is low cost? Is it because .doc is superior?

    One could argue that .doc is a "defacto standard" because it has been and is forwarded through monopoly leverage. That not only is price and quality not a motivator in this, it is due to the pervasive use of Office. Most people I've talked to say they use Office because "everybody else uses it". They are worried about compatibility. Not once has anyone told me they use it because it's superior or because it's a good value.

    So in the instance of .doc being a "defacto standard" we are looking at the antithesis of innovation derived from true, ufettered competititon.
    Tim Patterson
    • Office was not always a monopoly

      This is such a common mistake and complaint that it isn't funny. I remember 1994 quite clearly. I remember installing Office 4.3 on my 486 and being amazed and delighted that it could import WordPerfect 5.1 files and Quattro files and Paradox DBFs and all sorts of others, because those were the "de facto standards" of the day. Office gained market share and eventually became a monopoly, not because of Microsoft's hold on the OS, but because it was a BETTER PRODUCT. Period. WordPerfect took forever to get a Windows version, years after everyone was running Windows 3.11, and it was not as good as either its DOS version (5.1) or Word. On top of that, Office offered features that no one else could match, especially since up until Office, we were using a different vendor for each application. "Little things" that we take for granted now, like cutting and pasting between different applications. This is why Office became the "de facto standard", because it truly was the best product at the time. Sure, the individual components were rarely better BY THEMSELVES as products, but the Office suite, as a whole, was better than the alternative. Cheaper, too.

      J.Ja
      Justin James
      • Nice try - Windows was the monopoly

        Obviously you haven't seen the most recent lawsuit between Novell and Microsoft. Novell is pointing out that Microsoft was pushing OpenDoc (I have that CD around here somewhere) and strongly encouraged the vendors like WordPerfect to implement it. Surprise! Just as the vendors were readying their products for release, Microsoft drops support for OpenDoc and introduces OLE (now ActiveX). Microsoft then releases Office built around OLE. WordPerfect had difficulties opening files, printing, etc. They had to return to development and rush to change everything from OpenDoc to OLE. WordPerfect looked bad and Office was a star.

        So because Windows was a monopoly already, they controlled the APIs needed by the vendors. By changing the APIs at a strategic time allowed Office to gain support quickly.

        Office is now a good product but at the time it only supported a subset of the features in WordPerfect. I think WordPerect took too long moving to Windows but after seeing how they were sabataged, it probably didn't matter.
        JamieR_z
    • All that you say may be true ...

      ... to a point.

      MS has certainly been found guilty of anti-competitive practices and to what extent the courts have reigned in those practices is up for debate.

      Nevertheless, there is choice in the marketplace -- and always has been! Yet MS became a "de facto" monopoly because people chose the IBM PC over the Apple Macintosh -- not because it was technically superior but because it cost less!

      Apple is still in business because there are sufficient numbers of people who appreciate the technical superiority of the Macintosh. IBM, Sun, RedHat, and Novell are still in business for the same reasons.

      Yes, creating a "standard" levels the playing field but if leveling the playing field were enough, RTF would be sufficient to foster competition. Clearly, it is not.

      Innovation sparks competition and vice versa.

      Whether OpenDOC is technically superior to MS DOC format (or Corel WP format for that matter) is up for debate but one thing is certain, if all we had was RTF format today, some vendor would be pushing a proprietary solution in order to gain a competitive advantage. Without the drive for competitive advantage, there would be no innovation.
      M Wagner
  • Confusing monopoly with standards

    VHS won the battle so VHS is the standard.

    Microsoft forced PC vendors into deals that placed "free" copies of Office onto new laptops and PCs. CEOs buying those laptops got used to using this software and forced it upon others (I know I was the IT decision maker). Microsoft is a monopoly - not a standard.

    I've never used an EBCDIC computer. I think it was only on IBM machines and invented by IBM. ASCII is a standard.

    AT&T was a monopoly and restricted innovation. They controlled everything. For example, you couldn't purchase any phone you wanted and you couldn't plug a device (i.e. modem) directly into their phone lines. AT&T was a monopoly and innovation was stifled.

    People got creative with inventions to get around the monopoly (i.e. modem accoustic couplers) but AT&T tried very hard to squash that as well.

    The break up of AT&T allowed for: phone manufacturers, modems, fax machines. In other words it created competition and innovation.

    It standardized the phone cable and connectors. One standard. If not for one standard you would have to buy a modem and then build or buy a cable to connect it to the outlet.

    I recently heard that at one point in England, if you bought a lamp you would have to add your own plug since there were multiple standards.

    Still think two standards are better than one?

    One example where two standards seem to do okay is with DVDs. DVDs come in two standards (DVD+RW and DVD-RW) but luckily competition allows vendors to make drives that can at least read both if not write both formats. I probably pay for this support, but the cost to me seems low (drives cost around $30).
    JamieR_z
  • Don't sacrifice real innovation from real standards for market hype.

    Or...No Need for (MS) "standards du jour" when real standards exist..

    For me/us "The Year of Linux on the Desktop" was 2002.

    When we switched the vast majority of our home & businesses' systems to Linux. And with that our workflow & how we store & manage our data. Text, html, xml & pdf are our formats of choice & are real standards. Once in a blue moon we get a WP or MS doc/xls format and so far have not had any difficulty with those rare occasions, as many of our Clients/Vendors/Partners have done the same or have Web Portal type interaction.

    So for us at least MS Office is unnecessary.

    Prior to '95...... WP, Lotus, dBase/Clipper was the name of the game.....

    Prior to '05 (or '02 from our perspective) MS Office 4.x, 97, 2k, was the name of the game.

    '06 & beyond .... Open standards are the way to go...

    What would the Computer & Business landscape be like without standards like HTML & TCP/IP?

    MS Office has some interesting & useful qualities for some as well as much inertia and could be made even better by supporting real standards & Open formats.

    If MS is truly creative technology innovators/leaders then they should prove it by supporting Open formats like ODF. They certainly have opportunity, by making Office the best platform to run/use ODF on Windows.

    For us the choice has been made and no reason to look back to MS Office unless they provide what we need & want........
    LazLong
  • Exactly, A Nice Try

    Standards are all around you and you do not even notice them, but do they stop innovation NO, NO, NO!!!

    Did you ever change a flat tire on your car, the wheel nuts were some "standard" size for your wrench, the wheel stud was some "standard" size for the wheel nut size, the TPI or thread pitch on the wheel stud was also some industry "standard". What about the power outlet that you plug your appliances into?

    Did all those "standards" make your life more difficult or easier? Do those wheel nut standards prevent Ford or GM or Toyota, or Nissan, or Volvo, or Dodge, or Porsche, or Kia, or Hundi, or Volkswagen from innovating on cars or wheels? Again NO!! it only prevents monopoly. (I may have left some out but you get the picture.)
    bigpicture
    • Your automobile example sounds good ...

      ...but, in fact, if the automobile were invented today the idea of a steering wheel would be protected intellectual property and anyone using it in their automobile would be paying the inventor royalties!
      M Wagner
  • Defacto technology <> Innovation

    Anything that stifles innovation is bad especially proprietary technologies that become so pervasive that development of alternative and possibly better solutions (e.g. standards) is discouraged.
    peterlwu@...
    • It's a balancing act ...

      Standards bring down pricing but but if pricing gets too low, there is not enough profit left for anyone to invest in innovation. If all solutions must meet standards, then there will be no innovation. When ethernet was invented by Xerox, there was no Ethernet standard. Ethernet was proprietary. The fact the it became a "de facto" standard ultimately led to its becoming an IEEE standard.
      M Wagner
      • I agree it is a balancing act....

        One of what is most profitable .... not necessarily monetarily... but what has the greatest benefit & value......

        I think Ethernet maybe a bad example
        The idea Originated at Xerox PARC but it was jointly developed as a standard.

        from wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet

        >> Metcalfe left Xerox in 1979 to promote the use of personal computers and local area networks (LANs), forming 3Com. He convinced DEC, Intel, and Xerox to work together to promote Ethernet as a standard, the so-called "DIX" standard, for "Digital/Intel/Xerox"; it standardized the 10 megabits/second Ethernet, with 48-bit destination and source addresses and a global 16-bit type field. The standard was first published on September 30, 1980. It competed with two largely proprietary systems, token ring and ARCNET, but those soon found themselves buried under a tidal wave of Ethernet products. In the process, 3Com became a major company. <<

        I believe Standards in no way actually prevent or even impede real innovation. it does provide a "point of departure" to build upon or completely revamp if required.

        In fact it seems to me Proprietary IP can to be more of a hindrance to real
        innovation. As it seems to be used as a crutch by very large concerns.
        LazLong