The fact that you can read this at all is down to the understanding that standards matter. To you, and I, as users the benefit in being able to use as wide a range of ‘something’, due to standards allowing interoperability seems obvious. It’s a more complicated situation for a vender, and in particular, for a technology vendor. If you spend the R&D dollars to get a product to market first, then its an economic necessity to recover your costs by exploiting your ‘niche’ as long as possible, opening up and sharing the market with others through standards is most likely not good news. Think Apple and i Tunes, rather than MP3.

So far so good, but now I am going make a statement that goes against popular views, about Microsoft. I am about to suggest that we need to be asking a few more questions about the simple assertion by the European Union that Microsoft is bad for not opening up its products. So bad in fact that it needs to be punished by removing millions of euros through fines, which will provide the European Union with a handy boost to their permanently empty bank account, and, remove from useful circulation the money that could help rectify the situation. The point I want to make is not about Microsoft, right now they the example, but about the case that has produced a principle of law that could be applied to others.
Microsoft’s problem put simply is; here we all are, or at least most of us, happily using Microsoft technology to read this blog, by using ‘standards’, whilst simultaneously Microsoft is being fined hundreds of millions of Euros by the European Union for not opening up its proprietary products. Is this the same thing as standards compliance, or a different case, and one that might hit more widely as we adopt ‘API’ based integration for SOA? It’s this last aspect that has made me decide to blog on this topic.
By the rules of economists if we don’t like the Microsoft behaviour then we should stop buying their products until they change their behaviour. Clearly this hasn’t happen, in fact Microsoft market shares in areas such as server operating systems continues to grow, true there has been some share taken back in certain areas. Overall we seem to be showing our approval by continuing to buy, even while apparently saying they should change, and open up their products. So on the face of it we, the consumers, seem to think the upside of a cohesive software suite built at the cost of hundreds of millions in reducing complexity in installation, and risk of integration risk is a good thing.
Funnily enough it’s the Governments of the world who seem to be those who are not satisfied, look what has happened with document formats. France, Belgium and Denmark Governments have all decreed that open standard formats for documents are mandatory; there are similar moves at city or state levels elsewhere, so Microsoft has decided to support the OpenDocument format at the expense of its own OpenXML standard. Perfect! The market mechanism works!
But why did it happen? A cynic might suggest that it avoided governments having to spend money to update formats, but it’s actually due to the right conclusion, the same one that lets you read this blog, i.e. interoperability standards are a good and useful attribute. That’s not actually quite the same thing as the EU is asking from Microsoft which amounts to a full scale compliance with opening up the entire code base suggests, that’s nothing to do with ‘standards’ in spite of some of the claims made in the supporting case notes. Interoperability through well published interfaces is what is required by the majority of users, and yes these should be to globally agreed and accepted standards. Users accept, and want, to have the use of the full extensive, complex Microsoft proprietary operating system with its unique features, but as Microsoft has increasingly accepts, they also want to be able to use any content from any source.
Why have I drawn attention to this whole area? Well, it’s all about the increasing moves towards ‘Services’ built on the principle of declared interfaces for integration. There is a strong emphasis on ‘standards’ in this, and yet already a new generation of Middleware which is proprietary has appeared. Will the EU decide that Middleware vendors must ‘open up’ to help their competitors too? It’s not that far away in principle from the argument that the EU has now enshrined in law with their position on Microsoft. In defence of the EU action on Microsoft you can argue quite that it started before most of the current wave had really started, or Microsoft had felt threaten by other forms of competitor, etc, but nevertheless its now an enshrined principle of case law.
Does the EU believe that we need everything to be ‘standardised’, the words used to describe the requirement for Microsoft to ‘document their standard interfaces’, and how deep, or into how many granular pieces does this requirement apply? Will we continue to think that the proprietary middleware with unique properties is a better environment even if at this level it is non standardised?
The more you think about it there are some interesting moments ahead in middleware and standards, and some very real challenges that could see Middleware suppliers moving from being the good guys that connect to the bad guys who should open up their entire product code!