Developing free standards (Was: Re: Answers to your questions about W3C patent policy)
On Wed, Jan 01, 2003 at 01:05:00PM +1100, Francis Whittle wrote:
> Unfortunately this seems to be the place where free software ideals
> fall down; standards and patents. A lot of standards out there are
> patented; and the creates an environment the opensource community just
> doesn't stand a chance in, in terms of interoperability with
> proprietary products.
This brings to mind the infamous Halloween Documents. Decommoditizing
> The best we can do is point at the open standards and say "these are
> more standard, better, standards that can be implemented more standardly
> than patented standards because everyone has access to them not just
> big corporations" and hope that the world's information technology user,
> and I hate to use the term, market (it's not a community yet by a long
> shot) pays attention.
But pointing at open standards won't do very much if practically nobody is
*using* them. The most accepted standards tend to be de facto standards
(at least in some form). It's very difficult for an open standard to be
accepted if other competing proprietary standards are already out there,
together with implementations used by the majority of users.
> Hopefully, we can avoid some problems by making our standards more
> extensible and more standard... and integrating features of new [patent
> pending] "standards" being designed and developed into existing open
> standards, which saves the hassle of trying to develop an entire new
> standard that does a few things more than an existing standard.
It's not easy to come up with a standard that will get accepted by the
market. Again, if a large proportion of people stick to proprietary
implementations of proprietary standards, it's very difficult to convince
people to switch to the open standards. There isn't very much motivation:
they already have something that works, and accepted by the general
public, there is only little or no benefit to switch to an open standard.
The return on investment is not worth it. (And unfortunately, most people
think in terms of that rather than software freedom.)
Even if the open standard is "better" (whatever "better" means), there
will still be a lot of inertia against it if the proprietary standards
already have a headstart. (And even when it doesn't, there is no guarantee
an earlier, better standard will be more accepted than a later, inferior
> This is possibly one place where free software has the advantage.
> While large companies are consistently trying to knock each other (and
> opensource) off the boat (or in the cases of Microsoft, Unisys, et
> al., attempting to hole the bottom of the hull and craft a boat out of
> paper for themselves to sit in.), the opensource community is,
> essentially, a community, ie. has the capacity to work together and
> help each other out.
Unfortunately, competition does produce motivation for innovation. Or at
least, it motivates people to do a lot of things (eg. documentation,
hacking it to get it out the door before the competition.) that developers
otherwise won't do. The product may be inferior, but gets accepted anyway
because proprietary implementors can afford the money to push their
product, and because the first seller gets the best audience.
> A lot of companies don't seem to have figured this out, and continually
> refer to free software (most notably "Linux") as some kind of competing
> company, and that we're out there to get them
I'm not so sure about that. People may react to RMS that way, but not to
free software in general.
> Writing and promoting open standards is something we shouldn't give up
> on, but should work harder at. Get the alternative out before the
> patented, and make sure everyone's using the one we can use ;)
The problem is that proprietary people can afford to motivate R&D people
to actually create something new. It remains to be seen whether
self-motivated free software developers can consistently outdo financially
unencumbered R&D departments. Yes a lot of people have the itch, and yes
it *does* produce good quality innovations from time to time--but to win
the battle requires this to *consistently* happen. Sad to say, monetary
compensation affordable only by proprietary companies is sometimes the
only thing to keep you going when you burn out and want to take a break
before working more on the idea. But waiting out could well mean the
battle is lost. (Yes, there are commercially viable free software
companies that can fund R&D, but they don't have huge gobs of cash to
shell out to something that may not give a return on investment in the
required timeframe for them to stay afloat.)
Of course, I hope all this will turn out to be *not* the case. But it is
wiser to plan for the worst than to hope we can ignore it out of
MASM = Mana Ada Sistem, Man!