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TechEd 2004, Day 03

Posted by n_alex on May 27, 2004 at 9:15 PM PDT

Open standards allow multiple vendors to offer their own implementation of valuable technologies. The Sun and JCP open standards are particularly good at helping small vendors participate in the technology market. Competition makes software cheaper, forcing the vendors to improve the quality of their products and services. Open standards also lower the risk for the end users by at least providing for some common ground between technological platforms.

Microsoft and Sun seem to have much different overall attitudes about the role that Open Standards have to play in the technology industry. Like any tool, Open Standards are good for certain jobs and not so good for other jobs.

At first blush, Sun is a stronger advocate of open, community driven standards. They sponsor the Java Community Process, which allows major and minor players in the software industry to determine the future of the Java language and platform.

Microsoft, on the other hand, seems at first blush to be more monopolistic in their intentions. I've written this myself about them several times in the past. They envision themselves as the ground upon which all of us should build our software. They also see themselves as the thought-leaders of the industry.

In many ways, both of the last two paragraphs are uninformed. From my perspective here this week, both Microsoft and Sun have more in common than might be evident at first glance.

For instance, Sun created its own standards body that allows it to excercise veto power over JSRs in the Java Community Process. This is intelligent, because while the community should be able to (and encouraged to!) inform and influence the future of the Java platform, it should not be able to force that future if Sun thinks it is bad for the technology, the industry or both. This strategy lets the community push for new technologies and come to compromises and agreements with each other, but also lets Sun cast the deciding vote and do what it can to protect the community from itself (let's face it—sometimes we need it). We benefit from community participation and leadership as well as from Sun's unifying vision.

On the other hand, Microsoft has turned their C# and Common Language Runtime specification over to the ECMA and ISO standards organizations in order to show the world that it didn't need to excercise absolute control over the technology. Of course, they hold on tight to their implementations. I was surprised at first that Microsoft would relinquish their specs to a third party standards organization, but I think they knew what would happen if they didn't. They've come under too much fire in the past decade, and I think they've realized the benefit of sharing. Now they can commit themselves to shipping the absolute best implementation of these specifications. But what is the process for moving the technology forward? How do future versions of the spec get ratified and become standards themselves? How can companies and individuals participate in future of the technology? I can't answer these questions tonight. By working through ISO, can Microsoft provide the same unified vision that Sun can with the JCP? Or do we need to worry about dozens of *mostly compatible* CLRs popping up in the next 20 years?

Open standards can serve customers and vendors, but they require compromise from both ends. The alternative, proprietary and closed albeit ubiquitous technology, might lead to a rapid evolution of features, but it also comes with the risks associated with vendor lock-in and a significant limitation on the number of vendors who can participate in the market. Macromedia's Shockwave is a perfect example of this stagnation. Everyone has seen what it can do, but not many seriously consider developing smart UIs on it. I can't say for certain why that is, but my guess is that it's because there are so few tools available for working with it, and not many developers can afford them. In this case, Macromedia might have become too successful for its own (and our own) good.

I was speaking with an IBM rep yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned the tradeoff between open standards and vendor lock-in. He pointed out that in the end, everyone customizes and tweaks out their implementations of a standard technology, and that customers always get locked in to some degree or another. But he insisted it's a moot point, because all the major vendors offer migration tools to overcome the differences, and that lock-in override is just another feature they can sell. The best of these custom extensions can end up driving the future of the spec.

I'd have to say (and I think that the .NET and Java communities would agree with me on this one) that the best model for driving technology forward requires a degree of open standardization and community participation coupled with an executive force at the top to provide vision and leadership.

Fortunately, both the Java and the .NET communities seem to be on this track. Hopefully this trend will help developers from each side play better together in the coming years, and crank out some fine software while we're at it ; )

Now, if only more of the Microsoft leadership could take the two hours to read the Open Source Definition, the Free Software Definition, grok the difference, and start acting like it. Microsoft spent a decade educating news reporters about technology—did they think they were done? They need to realize the role that real Open Source organizations have to play in uniting small vendor communities, driving innovation and enabling small businesses and vendors to get a foothold in our industry. Sun definitely gets the picture, but there are still too many in the Microsoft camp who mistakenly equate Open Source with rabid, viral anti-capitalism, and they're missing out on a very important community resource in the process. Communities of every size are improved when their members work together and form businesses. Likewise, businesses are strengthened when they form communities and voluntarily share knowledge. Open Standards and Open Source licenses contribute to this.

I don't fault Microsoft's leadership for not taking more time to explore and communicate the distinction between Open Source and Free Software. And I'm not just talking BSD versus GPL here—it goes much deeper than that. Most mainstream Journalists certainly don't get it, yet they're the ones writing all the sensational articles about Open Source (who would ever trust a journalist about technology or law anyway?) Most Open Source developers don't even understand the difference. But that's alright—there are many people who do get it, there are books and literature coming out on the topic, and those who have figured it out will be happy to explain the difference to anyone who asks.

Those of us committed to real Open Source development know that we're doing so in order to open up more technological markets to more people, that innovation and hard work in software development should be rewarded, but also that there's much more to business than the bottom line.

Not to imply that Microsoft is completely oblivious to these things—there are some in Microsoft's ranks who know exactly what I'm talking about. Hats off to them, and may they all rise quickly through the ranks. ; )

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