I'm Brett Slatkin and this is where I write about programming and related topics. You can contact me here or view my projects.

25 March 2012

Diversity powers growth: Why open standards matter

Having helped define an open standard and worked to promote open standards over the years, I am still surprised when I come across people who think open standards are irrelevant. However, I have come to realize that this is our fault, a problem that the community of advocates for open standards must face head-on. We have failed to provide a clear, convincing, and unforgettable answer to the simple question: "Why do open standards matter?"

Hitting rock bottom

Further evidence of our failure to answer this existential question is present in the ongoing debate about WebKit monoculture. What's happened is that smart, highly-technical people have conflated the virtues of open source with those of open standards.

Some background for those who don't know: WebKit is an open source project that powers many browsers (including Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and the Android browser). With the success of iPhone/iPad, Android, and Chrome in general, a large portion of browsers on the Internet all share the same DNA. On smartphones WebKit totally dominates.

This common DNA and large market share has caused web developers to start ignoring browsers that are not based on WebKit. The community doesn't know how to deal with this possibility long-term. Essentially, browser manufacturers have become incentivized to be compatible with WebKit, an open source project, not the standards themselves. Put another way: This pushes the web towards de-facto standards, where compatibility with a single implementation (WebKit) is what's important. It's Microsoft Word all over again.

This marks a major regression in what we have valued on the Internet for over a decade: open standards driven by the community. I have actually heard web developers float the idea of just standardizing on WebKit as the one true browser, effectively throwing out the open standards entirely.

This whole story just highlights our dilemma: Even the people who I would expect to understand and support open standards are confused.

Market opportunities

Let's now acknowledge the giant elephant in the room: The Internet was built on open standards! The Internet is the best, most common, most widely experienced example of why open standards are important. Almost everything you know on the Internet was built using open standards. And the technology companies that affect our lives significantly these days achieved their impact by building on open standards. Some quick examples:
  • Google (my employer): Built a new search engine by indexing the entire web, which was accessible over protocols and in formats that are open standards.
  • Facebook: Provided social networking to millions of users worldwide by leveraging open standards to build their website and mobile apps.
  • Apple: Made the smartphone viable with the iPhone, an awesome web browser in your pocket (that gives you access to websites built using open standards).
So why does the connection between the goodness of the net and the goodness of open standards seem so remote? Why do I need to remind anyone of this? If my response to "why do open standards matter?" is "The Internet, Q.E.D.", people would think I'm crazy. They still won't care about open standards.

Network effects

A good summation I've heard is that open standards are important because they enable network effects. Network effects lead to exponential growth, and then a vast number of products and businesses appear overnight. This growth is also manifested in the generative nature of the web, the ability for anyone to publish, participate, and improve upon what they experience. This is why we love the Internet.

But I think the significance of open standards goes deeper than network effects. You can have network effects without open standards. So network effects are only a mechanism for distribution, not a root cause. I want to take this a step further.

The best I've come up with is that open standards are important because they promote competition and diversity. Open standards enable people from any background and companies of any size to enter the market and rise to the top. An environment of diversity spurs creativity and inspiration. So it's diversity that powers growth. It's diversity, born from competition, that leads to a bigger pie.

Turning detractors

I've found that the ambivalence people feel towards open standards follows a pattern. The most common argument is that we should let the market decide. If users think that open standards benefit them then they will chose products accordingly. Similarly, businesses will embrace open standards if they believe it gives them an advantage. If open standards don't help resource-squeezed startups, then why should they use them?

This attitude is short-sighted.

I think our Internet elders, like Tim Berners-Lee, laid a solid foundation for us so long ago that people forgot-- or never knew-- why the Internet is so great. We have, as a society, been reaping the benefits of this thoughtfulness for decades. People don't realize that this great stuff came at the cost of planning ahead, of being vigilant about long-term effects. These guys made distinct choices, such as community stewardship, which promoted the growth of the Internet. Without their foresight we would not be here today.

Losing the ebullient atmosphere of the web is something we should be worried about, but most people don't put these things together, they do not see the cause and effect. From now on, my way to turn detractors will be to highlight that almost every creative endeavor they look up to is only here because someone they don't know invested in the future, because someone back then thought it was the right thing to do.

Summing it up

Next time someone asks you, "Why do open standards matter?" please tell them:
  • Open standards are important because they promote competition and diversity.
  • The opportunities of today exist because someone in the past thought about the long term.
  • Open standards are an investment in our collective future.
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