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Washing Machines are not Lamps

Microsoft standards attorney David Rudin has posted his thoughts on my How Standards Bring Consumers Choice, in a post titled Floor Lamps are not Software.

David correctly points out that some appliances, like washing machines or electric dryers, with higher power requirements, have a different plug design. “Clearly, a one size standard does not fit all”, as he says. However, this is an intentional design decision made for safety reasons. If things cannot safely be interchanged, then good industrial design is to make them impossible to be interchanged. These plugs are incompatible and non-interoperable on purpose.

No one would intentionally do that with a file format, would they?

David then suggests that a single standard is insufficient because it would stifle competition and innovation:

Electricity is a largely mature and stable technology and there is not much room for innovation in the socket and receptacle space. Document formats, on the other hand, are constantly evolving to keep pace with changing technology. Competition is vital to ensure that those formats continue to meet those ever changing needs. Imagine if a single document format was adopted 15 years ago. How would that format deal with things that we take for granted today like including links to web pages, adding digital photos, or even embedding video in our documents? Unlike electricity, document formats are evolving at a rapid pace and competition will help drive that innovation.

I see it differently. Has a single HTML standard held back competition and innovation on the web? Has the move from vendor-specific network protocols to TCP/IP deprived consumers of innovation? Has the standardization of SQL held back the database industry? Have standardized programming languages like C and C++ prevented others from innovating? I see no evidence of this. On the contrary, standardized HTML, TCP/IP, SQL and C/C++ have been fundamental to the modern IT economy and have been responsible for many billions of dollars of value.

I’d also challenge the assertion that standardization equates with lack of innovation. If this were true, how does Microsoft reconcile their work standardizing OOXML, .NET, C++/CLI, C#, etc., with their needs for continuing innovation? Are these areas, “largely mature and stable”?

Or is this really just a belief that standardization is good when Microsoft originates and controls the standard, but it is bad otherwise?

Back to the examples of HTML, TCP/IP, SQL, C/C++. These standards continued to evolve, and innovations were brought to consumers, but they were done in a multi-vendor standards process where they reconciled their multiple perspectives and needs. Is that such a bad model to follow?

In the end, where does innovation come from? Does it require absolute control? Or does it come from having bright people? I’d suggest the latter, and point out that Microsoft employs several, but not all of the bright people in the area of file formats. Microsoft and Microsoft’s customers would benefit greatly if Microsoft would join with their competitors who are already innovating and competing in the evolution of the ISO ODF standard.

Remember the “X” in XML stands for Extensible. Making a single file format that meets Microsoft’s needs, as well as IBM’s, Sun’s, Corel’s, Novell’s, Google’s, etc., is not only technically possible, it is the best approach for the consumer. This does not mean that competition ends, or that all office applications will have identical features, or that we can only have lowest-common-denominator functionality. It just means that we should agree on a common representation for the features that we already have in common, and then have a framework for layering on vendor-specific innovations to express the areas where we differ.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Hubert 2007/02/14, 10:36 pm


    It should be noted that in France, at least, but I think other countries in Europe that use similar standards, washers and dryers are plugged on the same kind of electric outlets as the other appliances. Recently, even stoves and ovens work on these 220V outlets, because the security norms allow it.


  • Captain Europe 2007/02/15, 3:57 am

    Good morning Rob,

    They are many differences between north america and Europe on electrical standards.
    The plugs are differents.
    The voltage is diff. (127 V in USA, 220 V in Europe).
    The frequency is diff. (60 Hz in USA, 50 Hz in Europe).
    The connector of a lamp (E26 in USA, B27 or E27 in europe).
    And so and. I don’t speak now about televison standards (PAL, SECAM, NTSC).

    It’s a big problem ! In feb. 1999, I was in Nikko hotel in San Francisco (a really beautiful and great hotel). I visited CISCO Systems (San José). I had brought in my bag my electric shaver, but I did’nt use it because the plugs were incompatibles. I have asked, at the reception of the hotel, an adaptor, but they had not that !!!
    So, they had given to me … a mechanical shaver !!!

    A good article about electrical standard around the world :

    Best regards.

    Captain Europe.

  • Steve 2007/02/15, 3:58 am

    Yes, in the EU 230+-10V power system, you dont have separate sockets or power cords because the normal wall sockets can supply the right voltage. In the UK, we dont even need those safety covers you put over US sockets when you have two-year olds learning to crawl, because there is a safety interlock built in.

    the only reason the US needs different power sockets is because they standardized on the wrong voltage. And that is a very important lesson for everyone to remember.

  • Anonymous 2007/02/15, 4:22 am

    The claim that making “a single file format that meets Microsoft’s needs, as well as IBM’s, Sun’s, Corel’s, Novell’s, Google’s, etc., is not only technically possible, it is the best approach for the consumer” strikes me as a bit grand.

    Are you sure about this? How much redundancy is there between ODF and OOXML? ODF is already thousands of pages long (once you 1.5 space the spec and add in all the necessary standards it depends on but omits.) Do you really want to add in OOXML to that?

    Yes, there is a degree of overlap between the standards, but creating a new mega-standard that encompasses every feature that ODF or OOXML supports would result in an even larger spec. Do we want an incoherent, unsupportable 10,000 page monster that no office suite can render in its entirety correctly? Do we want a return to the “best viewed in” days, only this time for documents that matter, i.e. in office suites?

    Just because XML is extensible does not mean that one standard should be used for everything. That’s why we have DTDs!

  • Arnd Layer 2007/02/15, 6:16 am

    Making a single file format that meets Microsoft’s needs, as well as IBM’s, Sun’s, Corel’s, Novell’s, Google’s, etc., is not only technically possible, it is the best approach for the consumer.
    If a file format only met Microsoft’s needs, if it represented the internal memory structures of Word, then of course it could be that ODF could not support it.

  • Anonymous 2007/02/15, 8:08 am

    It should be noted that for instance the EU has asked Microsoft to submit some of their formats for ISO standardization to open up their formats.

    Also the OSS community has issued stong support for governments only allowing standard formats. (which in itself is probably very bad for innovation).
    I think organisations and people that only want one standard should accompany that statement by stating that governments should not legistave the use of standards. Else the standard itself is effectivly a means to stifle innovation by commercial parties and a way to support non-innovative parties.

  • Rob 2007/02/15, 8:58 am

    Hubert, Captain Europe & Steve, thanks for that background info. My impression was that in the early days of residential electricity every nation made its own standards. At one point we had something like 38 different incompatible plugs. Eventually, over the years, this consolidated somewhat. But once a house is wired, the cost of switching is very expensive, so the choice of a standard in this area tends to be persistent. On the other hand, in the early days at least there were not a lot of people traveling with electrical devices from one country to another. So high cost of switching plus low demand for interchange leads to the persistence of multiple standards. This is similar to how document formats were in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, before the internet took off. Today we exchange documents instantly via email and the web, with parties who may have different OS’s and applications. So there is a now high demand for a compatible, interoperable document format, a demand that did not exist back in the days when the main target for a Word document was the printer.

    “”a single file format that meets Microsoft’s needs…”. Maybe “needs” is not the right word here. What if they think they need vendor-lockin? So think of this as a single format that can fully represent documents from Microsoft, etc. Remember compatibility is not the same as identity. I’m not suggesting that the formats be simply appended, yielding another monstrosity. I’m suggesting a standardization process that starts with ODF, the existing ISO standard, as the base, makes a list of specific needed items that cannot currently be represented in ODF, and then finds a way to express these items, making the best use of existing ODF as well as other open standards, to express these features. The result would be longer than the current ODF, but far shorter than the existing OOXML.

    Anonymous, you are just parroting Microsoft’s claims that standardization stifles innovation. I’ve provided several examples and reasons why this is not true. Would you care to provide some counter-examples to support your assertions?

  • Anonymous 2007/02/15, 10:30 am

    “Has a single HTML standard held back competition and innovation on the web?”

    There is not a single HTML standard, and there definitely wasn’t during the years of rapid innovation. There are two major branches of “HTML” today, HTML 4 based on SGML and XHTML based on XML. The W3C tried for several years to make XHTML the one true one, but backed off last year and restarted standards word on an HTML5 because that is where the innovation was happening out on the web.

  • Rob 2007/02/15, 11:29 am

    XHTML 1.0 did not become a W3C Recommendation until January 2000. So in fact, there was a single uncontested HTML standard during the time period where most of innovation occurred: HTML 1.0 (1993), HTML 2.0 (1995), HTML 3.2(1997), HTML 4.0 (1997), HTML 4.01 (1999).

    Compare the innovation in the format before XHTML, and the innovation after XHTML, and tell me how innovation was increased by having two standards.

  • Lawrence 2007/02/16, 8:18 am

    I think you will find that the specification of different plugs and sockets for different power/current needs are part of the same electrical standard! They are not competing standards any more than specifing different fonts in a document would be… and of course using the same fonts for different documents is not a safety issue!

  • Anonymous 2007/02/16, 9:44 am

    [quote]Would you care to provide some counter-examples to support your assertions? [/quote]

    Do I need to ?
    I can’t name any standard that is broadly used and that is still innovated on other than in a slow slow slow way. Virtuall all fast innovations are made by single party technologies and almost never with shared technologies which all have evolutionary innovation.

  • Rob 2007/02/16, 2:02 pm

    How about Wi-Fi standards like 802.11a, 802.11b, 8021.11g and 802.11n? The IEEE maintains these, and has since 1997. No lack of progress there. This has worked very well for consumers as well. I don’t hear anyone complaining that they are suffering lack of innovation because a standards monoculture prevented competing standards to arise.

    I know it is fun to beat up on standards by committees and go crazy with some Ayn Rand view that only the individual can accomplish something of true genius, etc. But do you really think that OOXML is the work of one mind with one pure design, architecturally uncompromised and of highest consistency and integrity? Give me a break. At 6,039 pages, it is far more the result of committee mentality than anything you have ever seen. Further, it is the work of a very rushed committee.

  • Brandon 2007/02/16, 3:26 pm

    While I absolutely agree with you 100% on just about everything you said, to some extent I should point out that standardizing can affect innovation.

    I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I invented a crazy new document concept: the pie chart table. It’s like a table where all the text of each cell forms a pie slice of a circle and all the text is oriented towards the center. Now let’s say that for some absurd reason, this is a really important feature of my new office application. If ODF doesn’t have some way of handling new extensions, I’m not going to be able to support my pie char tables and be able to save perfectly every time, and I might remove my pie chart table feature because of this. Suddenly my innovation’s been stifled.

    That’s not to say this is the case here. I’m a firm ODF supporter and there are major problems with OOXML, but I’m just saying that there is an argument that conforming 100% to a standard could potentially stifle some innovation.

  • Rob 2007/02/16, 4:45 pm

    Hi Brandon,

    That is a good example of why extensibility is important. I hope a lot of vendors who support ODF have “crazy” ideas that like. The way to do it is via XML markup, in the ODF document, but in the vendor’s namespace, not in the standard ODF namespace. This is explicitly allowed by the ODF standard.

    Of course, this “foreign” markup will not be understood by other ODF editors and will be ignored. But this is far better than having the vendor go out and create an entirely new language just to express a new chart type. This was the point of my Parable of the Solipsistic Standard post, that we should avoid creating entirely new languages just because we have a few new words to express.

    Of course, if your pie chart table works well for you, you can propose it to the ODF TC and it may end up in the next version of the standard.

    That is the goal of document standardization : a single representation for the things we already agree on, and an extensibility mechanism for adding vendor-specific functionality beyond that. No one can seriously deny there is broad agreement on the majority of office functionality, text, cells, tables, bezier curves, number formats, etc. This stuff hasn’t changed in 15 years. It is silly to have two competing implementations of the functionality that is already the same across applications and vendors.

  • Anonymous 2007/02/16, 6:23 pm

    There’s an interesting memo in the Comes vs. Microsoft case. It has a thing or two to say about Microsoft and compatibility with other document standards.

    Guess the leopard is having trouble changing its spots?

  • Anonymous 2007/02/17, 11:59 pm

    Competition between similar standards often provides no tangible benefit to consumers. As an example, how much do people really benefit from competition between Blu-ray and HD DVD?

  • Anonymous 2007/02/18, 12:06 pm

    How much would people benefit if there were no competition between if HD and Blu-Ray?

    Not much. In this case, competition may not be the problem. It’s that most of the public is disinterested in HD DVD. It does not offer the same level of benefit that first-gen DVD did over VHS, yet its costs for the consumer are the same. Add the encumbrance of an even more restrictive DRM regime, and it’s no wonder the market has reacted so tepidly!

  • MikeZ 2007/02/21, 3:57 pm

    About standards, my favorite line is “Standards are wonderful – there are so many of them”. (I’m coming from Computing, where it’s not just different standards about different things, but lots of standards about the same thing.)

    The car is of course the “poster boy” for standards. Anyone who’s driven any car A can get into any other car B and drive off. Which is why we have car-rental agencies.

    But just a jump away, we find microwave ovens. Every time I get to a different oven, especially a newer model, I have to start all over again. Do I set time first, then cook level, or the reverse? And how do I do either?

    A long long time ago, I was in Europe with my parents, traveling. Checking in at the hotel, my father asked what the outlet voltage was. The desk clerk asked, “What part of the hotel are you in?”

    Anonymous: I don’t think we need to consider something as grotesque as OOXML. (But what Microsoft wants, we get.) Vanilla XML – and of course, ASCII – should be able to move any text data file to any machine. And CSS will do the rest. And that seems to be what Rob is talking about: Document Interchange Formats. Executable programs aren’t Interchangeable, because different computers use different processors. (At last, Apple came to its senses and standardized on the Intel series. And even on the UNIX series (as Linux). Finally, all’s well with the world.)

    Speaking of historic standards: Beta vs VHS. Technically, Beta was the superior format. But marketing (among other things) won out, leaving VHS, so here we are. With HD and Blu-Ray.

    Standards are a good thing, but to borrow a metaphor, let’s not be so standard we’re all in lockstep. Eventually someone will say, in his naive way, “Can’t we do X with this format?”, and the answer will be “No – it’s not in the standard.”

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