I have been writing a lot about the benefits of standards -especially open standards- for economic growth and citizens’ empowerement. Today however, I would like to explore, or at least highlight a more obscure side of standards.
Standards can be used as weapons; by weapons I mean tools of influence, economic and technological domination from one country, one company over others. Standards are not just developed by means of sitting around a table with other parties and deciding how it will be developed. Sometimes, a party will push forward the base of a standard, and by sharing this base, will ultimately influence the whole industry or ecosystem through the outcome of standardization: the existence of the standard and its adoption. Other times, the very fact that a standard is being developed and pushed on the market is a threat to existing other standards. In a way, this is what could have happened with ODF, only in this case the Microsoft Office binary file formats were never standards in the first place. But then the very fact that OOXML was ever submitted to the ISO created the second standard that partly broke the momentum of ODF adoption.
Other examples can be seen in other industries as well. Is there anything that can be done? Well, for one thing, it is important to realize that standards can become a rather dynamic affair. A standard with an expected power struggle, that is a standard that is already a bone of contention between two companies or two countries can be turned around into a struggle of different nature between different opponents.
Another important consideration is that a standard should always be contemplated not just in terms of what problem it claims to be solving but through a variety of parameters. Chiefly among them, the identity of its authors, the intellectual property rights and regime applicable to its specification, the state of the standard implementations and the players providing them, the existing standards in the same field, etc.
My humble experience in the field of digital standards makes me think that no standard is ever innocent, not in itself but by the intent of its authors or implementors. Even a nice and deeply useful standard such as ODF is a big stone thrown in the backyard of Microsoft. At this point you may be wondering if this post is essentially a change in position from what I’ve written here thoughout all these years (after all, this blog is called “Moved by Freedom, Powered by Standards”). It actually isn’t in any way. Standards are tools; they are opportunities for collaboration, economic and technical improvement. But they are limited in regulating the good or bad will of their stakeholders, and truth be told, I don’t think any process or tools could ever do that ex ante. The development rules, the IPR, the transparency of the process can be very effective in regulating the defects as well as whatever issues specific to standard itself may appear. They can even help fostering an effective ecosystem around the standard. But once you step up to a more strategic level, you need to go beyond the standards’ internal and external qualities (the specification itself, its IPR, its development process, etc.) . You need to understand who is doing what in the industry, who are the contenders and established players, the technological and legal disruptions, and even the political intent driving to the adoption of a standard or discouraging it. You need to understand why there’s even a standard in the first place.
With what has been previously called “true open standards”, things tend to improve insofar as their true openness guarantee the absence of vendor lock-in. Yet true open standards are assessed dynamically, never on the basis of predefined rules. As an example, one may demand that the IPR mode of a standard be only Royalty-Free. If there are two Royalty-Free competing standards, both satisfy this requirement, yet perhaps one of these two is ultimately controlled by a vendor, while the other one has a genuine inclusive development process. The history of ODF and OOXML is an interesting case in regard of using pre-defined criteria that may lead to a partial assessment of a standard.
All in all, standards are tools, and tools can often be used as weapons. It is never about the tool itself, but about the hand guiding it. Anybody can use a hammer, even me and my two left hands. But you can choose to hammer nails to suspend picture frames on a wall, or you can choose to use the hammer to throw it in the face of someone. The hammer is not responsible of your choice, for you only have had an intent guiding the hammer. Standards are no different; they can be both tools of liberation and economic welfare, or they can be used as competition crushers and weapons of economical warfare. In any case, judge by the hand first and the tool second.