In Search of Open Standards

The world depends on standards so that things can go together. For example, jars and lids are made in separate factories, so the factories have to agree on the way a lid fits onto a jar. This information is so important you might think it would be readily available, yet there is a strange veil of secrecy surrounding most standards. You cannot do a web search for jar lid standards and find the document that describes how lids fit jars. Chances are, the information is not on the web at all.

Standards Organizations and Closed Standards

And this is no accident. Standards organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) treat standards not as advice to be shared with people who want to do things in a standard way, but more like trade secrets to be zealously guarded.

The so-called open standards that they publish are, in many cases, available as documents that anyone can buy, but at prices so high that it would be impractical for most of the people who use a standard to obtain the document that describes it. What is more, the standards organizations protect their standards using copyright laws and other intellectual property laws to make it difficult for anyone else to tell you about the standard. The restrictions that surround the use of many “open” standards are almost like those that surround patents — indeed, many standards are covered by one or more patents that you have to license in order to use the standard.

Is this the result of the bureaucratic incompetence of standards organization that don’t know how to get their message out to the world? Could it be the result of the egotism of the standards groups that they guard their work so jealously and place such a price tag on it? How is it that what are supposed to be open standards are in practice closed standards, available only to a select few?

The answer is as simple as it is disturbing. The closed standards that come out of organizations such as ISO and ANSI are intended to create concentrations of business power. In some cases this is a blatant attempt to create a monopoly power for the standards organization itself. The most famous example of this is the ISO’s attempt to charge people for the use of the two-letter country codes that form parts of many Internet addresses. Under the scheme, ISO wanted people who use US to refer to the United States or NZ to refer to New Zealand to pay a royalty fee to the ISO. This approach to “standards” is profiteering, plain and simple.

Using Standards to Create Monopoly Power

But there is something more insidious going on with industrial standards. The companies in an industry use standards to create a degree of monopoly power for themselves. The complexity, high price, and secrecy of industrial standards create a kind of economic power, a sort of monopoly power that is shared by everyone who has access to the closed standards. This monopoly power is meant to create what economists call a barrier to entry, to make it difficult for new companies to get started in the industry. If you want to start a jar factory, you need more than just good glassworking skills. You need access to industry secrets that you may not know how to find. To put it in somewhat simplistic terms, it is as if the industry got together to prevent you from putting your own jars and lids together so that you will have to go to the existing jar companies to get jars and lids you can use. The result is higher prices for jars and lids and higher profits for people working in the jar and lid industries. This is the real idea behind most “standards.” Yet this result is economically inefficient because of the discarded jars and lids and the other materials and work that are wasted when things do not go together.

Despite all the rhetoric about open standards, I could not find a single open standard on the ISO and ANSI web sites. It seems that no information at all is available on some standards, while others can be purchased, but only at artificially high prices, prices that exclude most of the people who might have an interest in the subject area that the standard addresses.

Open Standards

So if the major standards organizations are not sources of open standards, are there any open standards to be found? In fact, there are many of them. But the open standards usually have no connection or only a passing connection to standards groups. They may originate in a government body, a business, a science lab, or a community-oriented organization. In many cases, they are virtually individual acts of authorship. Robert’s Rules of Order is a standard for parliamentary procedure that any organization can adopt and use. It was written in 1876 by, as you might guess, a single author named Robert. The length of the meter was determined by a French research team. The PostScript language that enabled computers and laser printers to communicate was created by a tiny software company called Adobe (now a much larger company). All of these are open standards, meaning that anyone who might want to use them can easily learn all about them.

Several of the most familiar open standards are the standards under which the Internet operates. You can learn about HTTP, HTML, XML, Unicode, and much more because these are open standards published, discussed, and readily available for research on the Internet. Each of these standards, like any true open standard, is just a web search away.

Distinguishing Open Standards

Why am I making such a big deal over this distinction between open standards and closed standards? The reason is that closed standards ultimately don’t work. You can use them, that is, but things tend to go wrong. Things go wrong because people don’t have the information they need to apply the standard correctly. If standards information is expensive or hard to get, people tend to rely on hearsay and secondhand reports about the standard instead. The trouble with this secondhand information is that it is sometimes slightly off. Then you get lids that don’t quite fit jars; CDs that play back with errors on some CD players; web pages that don’t look quite right in some browsers. As you may recall, that last point was a common knock on early web pages before HTML was effectively standardized. Now that HTML 4 and XHMTL 1 are official recommendations available for anyone to read and refer to on the W3C web site, it is easy to create web pages that display correctly all over the world.

We can make better business decisions and better government policy decisions by making a clear distinction between closed standards and open standards. Closed standards are ones that have a degree of secrecy around them. By contrast, if you want to read about an open standard, the definition or perhaps even the defining document is just a web search away.

It’s important to remember this simple test because people who create closed standards will usually tell you they are creating open standards. However, if it is difficult to obtain the definition of the standard, then it cannot be considered an open standard. Open standards are more likely to provide consistent results, so when you have a choice, it is better to use an open standard.

Open Standards on the Internet

The Internet is making it much easier to create open standards. For example, I am told at least five working groups are creating standards for representing music notation in XML. Any resulting document can be used as a standard as soon as the group creating it says it is ready — sometimes even sooner. Assuming the document is written in a way that is clear enough, the mere fact that is on a web page, an easily copied digital document, makes it something that can serve as a point of reference for anyone who needs such a thing.

Going into the future, the Internet will have to become the place of residence for any new standard that hopes to be taken seriously. Closed standards, I believe, will have a difficult time competing with open standards. When a student or engineer in a far corner of the world is looking for a standard to follow, an open standard is the one that is likely to come up on the radar screen. A closed standard might never be discovered. And of course, it is the standards that are used far and wide that are the ones the world comes to rely on.

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