Don't be fooled again

Glynn Moody writes an insightful analysis of Microsoft's latest attempt to confuse the issue of open standards by throwing a new word into the mix: balance. It didn't fool Glynn, and it shouldn't fool you, either.

In the final analysis, the question of what is an open standard, and how governments and free markets should police the claims of those who purport to offer open standards should never come down to a question of rhetoric. An open standard should never depend on what the definition of "is" is. Rather, there is plenty of room for those who are honest to say "X is a proprietary standard, dependent on restrictive technologies that must be licensed for a fee" and for others who are equally honest when they say "Y is an open standard, dependent on a variety of technologies, all of which can be practiced royalty free". And if we believe that free markets can make intelligent decisions based on fair information, market participants can choose which offering is most attractive to them and the best will come to all.

But it's not quite that simple.

History has taught is that proprietary standards are rife with problems that include poor transparency, poor governance, and most commonly, vendor lock-in, which is especially pernicious when a vendor uses the leverage of a standard to force customers to adopt all sorts of irrelevant technologies just to have access to the one technology they actually need. For example, could you imagine how unfortunate it would be if in order to use the standard filesystem of a USB thumb drive, you were forced to choose between one operating system that even the vendor agrees is well past its retirement age and another operating system that even the vendor agrees is most decidedly not what the market wants at all. Thus, proprietary standards have developed a stink about them. But the source of that stink is not in terminology, but rather the history of abuse the market has suffered because of the asymmetry of power between the rights holder and the rights user.

By contrast, open standards have been a smashing success. The World Wide Web is perhaps the greatest popular example of what can be accomplished with open standards, but there are thousands upon thousands of examples of open standards that have opened the market to competition and, most importantly, unrestricted innovation. But now those who have polluted their own pool have decided that their best course of action is to pretend they are suffering from a bad choice of nomenclature. They now want to take our mantle, cover themselves with it, and steal the trust we built while continuing the destructive practices that have shattered the trust of so many others.

And so the debate comes down not to a question of words, but a question of moral rights and community standards. Who, really, does it serve to collapse the distinction between a practice that has failed, utterly, and one that has succeeded, totally, granting those who have failed the rights to call their failed methods by the same name as the methods that have succeeded? Certainly not the free market, whose only possible tool of efficient choice is intelligent choice. The assault on intelligence represented by the blurring of the meaning of open standards to include royalty-bearing proprietary standards is as absurd as it is insulting. But the very fact that Microsoft might propose something so preposterous warns us to be vigilant. If you are not fooled (and I hope you are not!), you should take a little effort to make sure that your elected and appointed government officials are also not fooled.


The situation with open standards reminds me of the messed-up situation around food production and the term 'organic'. When organic food was a very small part of the market, the term had meaning to consumers. Due to the high cost of production and purchase combined with the relatively local standards bearers such as Oregon and California associations, we could rely upon the quality of the product. Organic producers were committed to their ideals and quality, and it showed in the food. Now that it's a much bigger market, with an internationally known reputation, and a shiny FDA standard, the situation is all muddled. Companies have grown very big off higher organic prices that have largely stayed the same for the consumers while the small organic producers are under price pressure. Now they are cannabilizing their own market. For example, Horizon (and Silk, through their parent company) are offering new or replacement products that are "natural", which is an unregulated term that has no meaning beyond marketing hype: This is a bait-and-switch to consumers, who either trust that when they see Horizon/Silk it meeans "organic", or they trust that the definition of "natural" as self-defined by Horizon/Silk is good enough in comparison. This is just one example where the comparatively open standard of organic as practiced originally is being overrun with non-standard terms such as "natural" and "sustainable". This ABA article covers some of the story: One difference I experience all the time is the way organic can be applied to a product that is not 100% organic. People really don't read labels; they trust the wording and the organic seal, yet up to 5% of the product being of any origin. You may recall that when the FDA originally began to put together the rules around their organic standards, they seriously considered having genetically-modified food meet the criteria, under pressure from large food manufacturers. Regardless of one's opinions of GM food, it clearly is not the same philosophical or scientific meaning as what organic standards to that point upheld. All of this just makes me think, "This is the Dark Side of capitalism." -- Karsten Wade quaid (at) iquaid (dot) org

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