Among the standards principles IBM announced on September 23rd, there is one that is particularly dear to me (surely because of my current responsibilities at IBM but also because of my background with W3C). This principle is what we refer to as the principle of “Global Application”. It reads:
Encourage emerging and developed economies to both adopt open global standards and to participate in the creation of those standards.
Despite what the OOXML proponents have been claiming for the sake of their own benefit, having multiple standards for the same task doesn’t do anybody any good. Multiple standards means market fragmentation and duplication of efforts. Market fragmentation and duplication of efforts mean less choice and higher cost.
As we move forward we must learn from the past while not letting it get in our way. We must ensure that standards are developed in such a way that all stakeholders can participate and feel compelled to do so. This is essential for all requirements to be addressed but also for everybody to have a sense of ownership. Both of these elements are key to the adoption of the standard by all.
I consider the case of the Uniform Office Format (UOF) a perfect example of our failure to do just that. What was it that led China to create its own format rather than work with us on expanding ODF so that it addresses their needs? Their work started with a fork from OpenOffice mind you. So, why weren’t they at the table with us?
We need to understand what went wrong and ensure that this doesn’t happen again. For everybody’s benefit. Failure to so will result in more pain for everybody, just like the pain we are experiencing with UOF.
The situation with UOF is now that China is trying to gain support from vendors like IBM. These vendors would like to play in the Chinese market but they have already heavily invested in ODF and are understandly not too keen on the idea of spending resources on UOF. They would rather see China adopt ODF. But ODF doesn’t quite fit China’s needs. So, efforts are being made towards a possible convergence of the formats but these are merely damage control that remain costly for all.
And this is not all. The Global Application principle cannot be separated from the principle of “Implementability” which reads:
Collaborate with standards bodies and developer communities to ensure that open software interoperability standards are freely available and implementable.
Indeed, one of the major barriers to global adoption by developing countries of the so called “international standards” is the toll on implementing them. Whether it is about paying just to access the document or about paying royalties to foreign companies for patents that read on the standard, the price tag this constitutes is just not acceptable to emerging countries. They already face enough challenges otherwise.
The European Commission as well as countries like India are trying to move the ball by developing policies that restrict public procurement to “open standards” which they define as being royalty free. This is provoking reactions from various organizations that want to stop this movement. Their main contention appears to be that we’ve been developing standards for decades on a RAND basis and adopting a royalty free only policy will rule out hundreds of existing standards and products. I say: tough!
It’s about time that we recognize that the way we’ve been doing standards isn’t going to work anymore. And we just cannot expect the world to be shackled by the way we’ve been doing things in the past.
Traditionally, IT standards have for the most part been developed by the western world and then pushed onto the rest of the world. A RAND based system might have been fine in an environment where the odds were balanced by the fact that all parties had more or less similar stakes in the game. But this doesn’t work when you add a bunch of new players who find themselves at the table empty handed.
So, it’s not surprise that the rest of the world is telling us “No, thanks”. Can we really blame them?
Those that cling onto the old ways are part of the past. The future simply cannot be based on a grossly unbalanced system that gives a hudge advantage to some parties. Getting rid of the toll on implementating standards is the price to pay to see them globally adopted. Failures to recognize that simple fact and attempts to derail the trends set by the European Commission and the likes are simply a waste of time.