Software versus Protocol (or file format) Standards

Every computer company, whether hardware vendor or software vendor, plays the "customer lock-in" game. The object is to foster customer dependence on technology that only one company can deliver, and then take the customers to the proverbial cleaners because the customer has no alternatives.

Open standards for computer networking protocols, and for file formats, serve to mitigate or prevent customer lock-in, and this is why more open standards are a good thing, rather than a bad thing. Unfortunately, it appears that this seemingly obvious truth is lost on the majority of Information Systems (IS) professionals in the business world.

Open standards of this type are the central message of the Internet. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) requires demonstrated "interoperability", i.e. disparate computers and software successfully communicating, as the primary requirement for any standard specification to be advanced in their process.

A Scenario

Imagine this scenario: you're the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a major corporation. You, in order to promote the efficient flow of information through the company, issue an edict to the effect that Microsoft Word (or WordPerfect, or whatever) shall be the standard software package for producing and exchanging documents throughout the company.

While this should work fine provided that there is a version of that software for every computer in your enterprise - an iffy proposition these days; there are two unhappy outcomes from this kind of "standard":

  1. It is very difficult for a single software package to fully meet the needs and working styles of every person or group in a medium or large company, aside from the issue of finding a version of that single software for every computer your enterprise owns & operates.

    Some people and departments will be very unhappy with your order, and will likely defy it, by using a different and probably incompatible software package that better fits their department's business needs. This will cause problems when they try to exchange documents.

  2. You've just locked your company's document destiny to this one software vendor, and they can bleed you dry if they so choose. Or, worse, if they go out of business, you're stuck.

What's worse is that converting from one document format to another is usually difficult because of semantic information loss - different document representations have different assumptions, and it's usually not possible to cleanly translate from one set to another. This is the "lock-in." In strict terms, the software vendor can't charge you more than it could cost you to convert your documents to another format, but who has that particular price at his fingertips at any given moment?

A Different Scenario

Now, let's change the scenario a bit: instread of standardizing on a particular word processing software package, you order that all documents shall be in a standard file format, e.g. SGML with a particular DTD.

In this world, your company makes it clear to all software vendors that this is your chosen corporate document standard and that if they wish your business, their software must implement appropriate interpretation and manipulation of that file format.

This puts those software vendors into competition with each other for your business; presumably the one who can produce the best results with the most pleasant and efficient user interface will win your dollars.

This also gives the various different groups inside your company the freedom to pick the software that best suits their working style, so long as it produces the standard document file format. Everybody wins.

If we take this scenario further - you contact your fellow CIO's in other companies and promote this idea, then even more people and organizations win. Just by doing the right kind of standard.

How the Internet fits

This is precisely what the Internet is about: standards for networking protocols, for E-mail & messaging, for file transfer, for remote access, and file formats like HTML. The Universities and Research Institutions that initially designed the Internet had exactly this result in mind: no one vendor in control, all competing on a level playing field for the business, with the best results for the customers.

Of course, the big companies will fight this kind of initiative because it requires them to compete harder - they can't rest on their laurels. Small companies will welcome this kind of initiative, because it gives them a foot-in-the-door with potentially big accounts, for (relative to their size) lots of money.

Some vendors will counter with "standards" of their own. Of these, some will be honest attempts to extend an existing public standard in a useful way, and some will be an attempt to stymie the process. The things to watch out for are:

  1. no published specification (or an insufficiently published specification that cannot be independently implemented for lack of particular details).

  2. onerous license or patent restrictions.

  3. No alternative vendors of software for that "standard."

All of these end in customer lock-in to a proprietary "standard" - a situation which is not to the customer's benefit in the long run.

Open, public standards for file formats, and computer networking protocols are the right thing for everybody.

Another essay on this issue can be found at the Best Viewed With Any Browser campaign site.

Erik Fair <>
October 9, 1997