Tech Nerdery

Standards Matter

To most people computers are about accomplishing a task. Getting from A to B as simply as they can, so to speak. Almost no one reading this really cares much about what file format you are saving that word document in as long as the person you are sending it to can read it. Likewise, you probably don’t care how these web pages get from the server to your computer, you just care that it works.

Some other related scenarios where you only care that it “just works” that I think we take for granted. Fitting pipes together. If you do any plumbing you care that when you buy a 1/4″ tube and a matching elbow that the threads on both match up. Gasoline octane ratings – it is good to know that the gas you put in your car will work no matter what car you have. Batteries – it is nice to be sure that your electronics will work with either Energizer or Duracell as long as they are AA. It is nice to also know that your wall sockets are 110VAC at 60Hz no matter what house or apartment you are in.

The point here is that everything except the Word document scenario works because there are agreed upon standards that these things are based on. There are a couple of “standards groups” (which sometimes ends up being legislation) out there that certify a written specification and declare it a standard for many different things, and then corporations and businesses agree to make their products to meet this standard. And this increases competition within that market segment, but it also increases overall revenue because we as customers know that we are getting something that will do what it is advertised to do (you can see how this is especially important with gasoline), so we aren’t afraid to purchase these products for fear of not being able to replace batteries or fix plumbing.

Which is why creating standards is an important step in the process of maturation of any market segment, but it is not a step to be taken lightly.

Today, we are all trading things around the web, and to some degree we have let the market sort things out for us. But in some ways the market has decided that public standards would be best for all parties involved as a sector was growing up. VGA and DVI based monitor connectors, MPEG1/2/4 for downloading videos and watching DVDs, TCP/IP for communication over networks and IEEE 802.11 for wireless LAN’s so you can surf the web on your couch are just a few small examples.

These are standards that take the best approach at forward thinking as they can, and as the example of the MPEG show us are also willing to adapt to the changing technology around it. With these standards to support and ease development efforts new innovative technology pops up around them in the form of software and hardware. (The iPod video, as well as the archos jukebox plays forms of the MPEG4 based standardized video for example)

Where there is not a standard there is confusion. Some examples include phone chargers and data cables for phones. If phone companies standardized their phone chargers so that Nokia’s worked with Motorola’s which worked with LG, which worked with etc, etc don’t you think it would be a lot better situation for everyone? We could all charge our phones at eachother’s houses, and eachother’s cars, and our old stuff would always work with our new stuff. They would be cheaper and probably come with little neat features like a retractable cord, or a better power monitor light to indicate the phone is charging…the possibilities are endless. But because the market is vendor locked, it stagnates and prices are fixed to ensure the right margins are achieved when buying a new phone.

But the major area I believe is in need of innovation is in the area of document file formats. Mostly the average person doesn’t care, but a guy like me looks at Word 95, 97, 2000, XP, 2003 and doesn’t see much improvement between them but I do notice that word 97 can’t open a word 2003 file. I notice this because I help people fix their computer problems, and some people (cough*Dad’s Old Church*cough) are still using word 97.

So, a guy like me, who is trying to fix someones computer, or help someone open a file that a different person sent them in Word ’97 is extremely frustrated by something like this because it doesn’t “Just work”

A standardized, open to the public, way of saving a document of formatted text and layout would cure this. Something that was flexible enough to grow and be extended as the market demanded, but explained and detailed well enough that a new start-up or open source software project could implement it into its own software.

This is possible, and that is exactly what a bunch of companies set out to do. Because they felt that people who can’t afford to pony up the cash for MS Office (students for example) shouldn’t be kept from opening and editing files from other people (such as teachers). This should be especially true for the government where everyone should be able to see what they are creating. And a standard means that there is will always be a way to open those files, because in the future after this has died, there is a public record of the standard so it could always be re-implemented.

PDF is a standard that was opened up by Adobe a while ago. Their product still remains as the best high-end PDF creator and reader. But the competitive marketspace for products in the $50 to $200 range has become much more interesting and the small businesses, EDU’s, and non-profits who used to pirate Adobe acrobat to meet their needs now have affordable (and free open-source) alternatives. Because of this, many progressive states have put PDF on the approved list of formats to distribute forms in, while Word is not.

Recently MS realized the jeopardy they are in, especially in government situations, after a head IT guy for Massachusetts declared that MS was out because it isolated poorer people, libraries, and edu’s from opening state documents. There was a big fight, MS threw money around, and that guy got fired. But it scared them since the OASIS alliance’s ODF (Open Document Format) is already an approved international standard (ISO) which means it is acceptable under Massachusetts proposed requirements.

So, Microsoft went so far as to try to get their standard Office 2007 file format standardized with a separate standards body. Most of the technical community welcomed this move cautiously in the sense that Microsoft would no longer be the only ones who could open their office files without a lot of reverse engineering. But many said it was a poor standard.

Here is Jeremy Allison’s take on this subject. He is one of the lead designers / software engineers who wrote the code for Linux to be able to talk to and join windows file-sharing networks and windows NT domains. And Google agrees with his opinion.

But the thing I like about this is that Microsoft was finally forced to out their standard into the public, so now it is up for debate. The community at large (or representatives from all the countries in the standards body) gets to decide whether it is good enough to be a standard, and if it is worth having two standards out their competing for marketshare. No longer is it determined by Microsoft’s monopolistic manipulation of the market and the consumer. No longer will we be forced to upgrade every couple of years just to share files with eachother. If Microsoft wants to change their file format in word 2010 then they have to have it approved by the standards body all over as a revision to the standard (that is if their standard is even improved)

More eyes on things like this only make it better, give it more competition, and benefits us as the consumer. And in my opinion the more things we get out in the open for other people to review and criticize (and use if you are into open-source like I am) the better.