The Standards Blog

Open standards, process and ultimatums

Open Source/Open Standards

As with many things (including the Web), semantics have a lot to do with dialogue, or how you connect the points made on, and in the Web, as it were. So how is a demand consistent with the concept of "open standards?"

I don't usually just paste in a response in its entirety that I entered elsewhere, but I'm leaving on a trip momentarily, so this time a cut and paste will need to do. The following is in response to Larry Rosen's post at ZDNet Blogs on the David Berlind post from yesterday:

As with many things (including the Web), semantics have a lot to do with dialogue, or how you connect the points made on, and in the Web, as it were.

It's hard not to use words like "hijack" when one group demands, and threatens boycotts, if another group doesn't do what the first wants it to, eh? My real concern here, though, comes from the fact that political processes need to work, and it's not easy to get political systems to work, as the papers daily show. The standards process does work, even though (unlike an open source project) it brings together people with much more divergent viewpoints. That's important, and difficult to do. It involves more compromises than does reaching agreement among only like-minded individuals.

Another way that it's hard not to use words like "hijack" if you need an accurate descriptor is where I started here yesterday, which is that every definition of "open standards" world-wide has always included "consensus" as the first and foremost attribute - it may be the only attribute that everyone has always agreed on.

So how is a demand consistent with the concept of "open standards?" It isn't, and it can't be.

Just to show that I'm not being selective or naïve in my presentation, here's an outtake from my own blog last night:

Which is not, of course, to say that in traditional standard setting people don't play hard, sometimes cheat, and always (if they're smart) keep an eye on the other guys that have a reputation for pushing the envelope. But still, the system *works*, and works a lot better than a lot of other political systems (which of course it is), such as in Washington, the U.N., or most other examples you can think of. The reason? Because ultimately everyone is better off when the system works, and they know it.

So I'll stick with a consensus system with a track record. I'm perfectly happy to allow the momentum that's building behind open source to continue to find its manifest destiny at its own speed. People aren't starving or dying because open source isn't spreading more quickly (heavens knows they are for enough other reasons). I'd rather honor process values and go for a win/win that's durable, then a win/lose that sets dangerous precedents and may be less stable.

That may sound like silly idealism, but our county's history, and my own experience, have taught me that process, to protect all stakeholders, matters as much in standard setting as it does in open source, to get best technical results.

So here's a point to leave you with. Those who argue most strongly for open source have no great love for big companies, who obviously hold a lot of power. In standard setting, process is what protects the little guy from the big guys. If process is torn down to win the war, then process may not be there to help you survive the peace. I can't make that point as eloquently as did the screenwriter in that wonderful movie, The Lion in Winter, in a dialogue between More and his son-in-law, Roper, so I'll close with that.

More: (rejecting the demand that he arrest an alleged spy) "and go he should, if he were the devil himself until he broke the law."

Roper: "You would give the devil benefit of law?"

More: "Yes, what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil."

Roper: "Yes, I would cut down every law in England to get to the devil".

More: "Oh, and when the last law was down—and the devil turned on you where would you hide, Roper—the laws all being flat. This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws not god’s laws—and if you cut them down....do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then. Yes I would give the devil himself benefit of law for my own safety’s sake."

Best regards,

Andy