Understanding Standards

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The attempt to have Microsoft's OOXML approved as an ISO standard using a fast-track process comes to a climax this week, when national bodies will vote on the matter. Given the farcical nature of the whole idea of “fast-tracking” 6000 pages of documentation in the first place, to say nothing of the futile attempt last month to resolve over a thousand comments in a few days, it is no surprise that some dotty arguments are being trotted out in support of Microsoft's file format. Take the following, for example:

He also advised governments against mandating just one document standard as it may run foul of polices set by the World Trade Organization (WTO), opening themselves to possible legal challenges. "One of the big concerns of the WTO is that you should not use standards as a barrier to trade," he said.

Governments might face legal challenges for choosing one, rather than two competing standards? This sounds like a the old joke that standards are a wonderful thing, that's why we have so many of them. The point is that the ideal situation is precisely when you have a single, universal standard – think of TCP/IP. Imagine a world where Novell's IPX/SPX were still widely used for international communications, leading to two, incompatible Internets. Would governments who opted for just TCP/IP rather than struggling with both face “possible legal challenges”? Hardly.

And the idea that adopting a single document standard creates a “barrier to trade” also misunderstands the situation, as the further comments makes clear:

"If a government enforces [the use of one standard], that would mean the whole country is not allowed to use OOXML. They could get into a very difficult legal situation as this could be challenged legally," noted van den Beld.

Again, this is bonkers, and confuses several issues. If a government adopts ODF, it is not going to forbid anyone from using OOXML for themselves: it has just decided that it wants to use ODF, as it is at liberty to do.

But the real point is that what single standards encourage is multiple implementations of that standard. Microsoft is perfectly at liberty to come up with its own implementation of ODF for its products - indeed, everybody wants it to, and all the indications are that it is a fairly straightforward piece of coding.

This would give it access to every government that adopts ODF for its document standard, without limiting its ability to sell products based on its own OOXML in the slightest. There is no question of “barrier to trade”: the playing-field is entirely level, since Microsoft, like everyone else, can simply write the relevant code and compete on its quality. Indeed, the WTO would presumably encourage the adoption of a single standard in a given domain for this very reason, since fair and free competition lies at the heart of its mission.

Multiple implementations of a single standard are a good thing, because they encourage competition between products that can be swapped in and out easily. This puts users firmly in control, and makes software suppliers responsive to their needs. Multiple standards for a given domain such as document formats are a bad thing, because you cannot move easily between them as a result of high switching costs. They are likely to reduce the pool of potential competitors for each standard, since not every company can support every standard. Less competition encourages lazy programming and lock-in by suppliers who know that users are unlikely to make the huge effort to move to a totally different standard.

Update: And here's someone who thinks, on the contrary, the WTO might object if OOXML is approved.