Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Culture of Standards

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM's Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation, writes about the culture of standards that the Internet brought to the IT industry. Below are edited excerpts from his blog entitled "Business Innovation in an On Demand World":
Before the Internet era, technology companies competed with each other to try to establish control points with their proprietary interfaces and protocols. The Internet showed everybody how much more valuable IT becomes when you can connect and access everything regardless of vendors, and started the IT industry on a whole new strategy based on embracing open standards.

The rise of standards is misunderstood and even feared by many who see it as a commoditizing influence on the IT industry. But, standards that can turn businesses into commodity providers with price as their chief competitive differentiation, can turn other businesses into successful innovators, who will leverage those standards to quickly and efficiently create differentiated offerings. In other words, far from just commoditizing what businesses and individuals do, a standards-based Internet is unleashing vastly more customization and individuality. It is making its users feel empowered, distinctive -- special.

History has shown us that over time, all successful technologies and services become increasingly standardized and available to more and more people at lower and lower prices. But history has equally demonstrated that those same standards open up enormous new areas to people's innovative capacities.
I find it fascinatingly revealing to juxtapose IBM's position on standards as expressed by one of its leading strategists with that of its longtime archrival Microsoft.

In case you haven't been following the news of late, my home state of Massachusetts has once again created quite an uproar vis-a-vis Microsoft. You might recall that Massachusetts, and Massachusetts alone, held out after the Department of Justice and a number of other states settled their landmark antitrust suits against Microsoft, long after Judge Thomas Jackson handed down his original decision finding Microsoft guilty of violating antitrust laws (see a column I wrote a long time ago entitled "Microsoft Makes Massachusetts Mad"). Last week, Massachusetts state officials approved a proposal to standardize desktop applications on the OpenDocument format. The OpenDocument format is intended to provide an open alternative to proprietary document formats including the popular DOC (Word), XLS (Excel), and PPT (PowerPoint) formats used by Microsoft Office, as well as Microsoft Office Open XML format (see my earlier blog posting entitled "XML Uber Alles"). This decision by Massachusetts officials effectively eliminates Microsoft, which has chosen not to support OpenDocument, from the state's procurement process.

Microsoft, it should be noted, could add native support to Office for OpenDocument , but won't.

People from Massachusetts know, perhaps better than anywhere else, how proprietary companies can fall by the wayside. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the center of the minicomputer universe was based in the corridor between Routes 128 and 495. But once great companies like DEC, DG, Wang, and Prime are all now essentially gone because they were stuck in their ways.

The question is, in a world of open standards, how does Microsoft justify closed-format documents? Only the market can provide the answer. In the meantime, I find it terribly ironic that IBM, once the world's most proprietary company ever, is today leading the standards charge while Microsoft, the company that along with Intel disrupted technology forever, is now cast as the great defender of proprietary.


Blogger ITscout said...

Did Microsoft send the wrong guy to Massachusetts' ODF hearing? by ZDNet's David Berlind -- Microsoft called Massachusetts' bluff and lost. One of Microsoft's biggest mistakes in what will prove to be a critical turning point for the Redmond-based company is that it sent the wrong men to Massachusetts' last hearing before that state set a new IT policy into stone: one that essentially bumps MS-Office from its approved software [...]

2:44 PM  

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