RE: Working Within the System

From: Billy Brown (
Date: Sat Apr 29 2000 - 19:57:54 MDT

Martin Ling wrote:
> However, there are very competent bodies who set out open industry
> standards for software, hardware and the Internet.

Open standards are primarily a marketing tool used by companies that have
tiny market shares to persuade people to buy their products. Sometimes such
a "standard" will actually become so commonly used as to become the normal
way of doing things (i.e. HTML), but it is just as common for a completely
proprietary standard produced by a big company to end up in that role (i.e.

Just because a bunch of companies get together and issue a 'standard' does
not mean that their work should have any special protections, or that
everyone should immediately adopt it.

> And you know what? I'm not even suggesting Microsoft has to use them!
> They are more than welcome to go off and use their own proprietary
> standards instead.
> What I *really* object to is the way they take the standards, claim they
> are using them, and then produce their own broken implementation, add
> own undocumented features, and use their position to make sure those
> changes get spread and used, causing incompatibilities everywhere.

If you think this is some special sin of Microsoft's, you need to look
around more often.

Portability standards, like Java, HTML or POSIX, are essentially marketing
efforts launched by coalitions of companies who do not have enough market
share to be viable competitors by themselves. Such standards are inherently
unstable, in that it is in the best interests of any vendor to do things
that disrupt the standard. Generally every vendor who supports the standard
will also new features in an effort to win market share. At the same time,
companies with established technologies of their own will try to co-opt or
undermine the standard through tactics like false adoption, nonstandard
implementation and back-room bullying. This is all a normal part of life in
the business world, and MS isn't any worse about it than anyone else in the

Interoperability standards, like TCP and HTTP, are another matter. Because
their purpose is to allow products from different vendors to work together,
it is usually in everyone's best interests to fully codify and support them.
No one has much to gain from adding proprietary features, or trying to
sabotage someone else's implementation, so it doesn't happen very often. In
this field Microsoft has actually done an outstanding job - in less than a
decade they moved from a very primitive OS based entirely on proprietary
software to a competitive product that supports every significant
interoperability standard I've ever heard of (and a lot of insignificant
ones as well).

> The modern world is *utterly dependent* on its IT infrastructure. The
> days when a few commercial entities could be entrusted with it should be
> long past.

No one is *entrusted* with anything in a free market. Commercial entities
can only control a vital technology if they are actually doing a decent job
of managing it, because the moment they begin making mistakes they create an
opportunity for rivals to make big money by fixing things. The whole system
is self-correcting (and, indeed, self-improving), in a way that no
government has ever achieved.

Besides, there is no alternative. The only way to prevent corporations from
controlling the technologies they create is to resort to government
confiscation, and we've already seen that that approach is far worse.

> I have no objection to Microsoft writing and selling their
> software, and making a hell a lot of money out of it. But they don't
> have any right to make things difficult for those (who are *not*
> competitors of theirs) trying to ensure people have the freedom to use
> whichever tools they wish to make use of the infrastructure, for
> whatever reason

That sounds very noble and high-minded, but in practice what you want is for
MS to be forbidden from competing with anyone who chooses to wrap themselves
in the 'open standards' flag. That is both nonsensical and harmful to
consumers. Do you really think that Sun is pushing Java out of the goodness
of their hearts? Of course not. Anything that any company does is ultimately
intended to make money. Standards efforts are simply another tool companies
use to compete with one another, and any attempt by the government to
dictate that some particular standard should win simply replaces market
competition with a contest of political influence.

> (such as because Microsoft's are buggy and insecure).

Ten years ago this remark would have been on target. Five years ago the
matter would have been arguable. Today it is simply ignorant prejudice.
Microsoft's current performance in both these areas is in the top 25% of the
industry, and still improving at a steady rate. They aren't the best in the
world, but they are much better than average, and unless the Unix vendors
get their collective act together they *will* be the best in another five
years or so.

Which just illustrates once again why I think the antitrust case is such a
bad idea.

Billy Brown

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:09:58 MDT