Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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How Standards Affect Everything

Last month "Connected" took a bit of a hiatus as I had the opportunity to finally switch off my computer (and my brain) and take an excursion to Thailand. The experience was quite an eye opener and in part provided the inspiration for this article: standards. Before you say "What could be more boring than an article about standards?", let's examine how they affect nearly every facet of our lives – from computers to clothing, communications to condoms.

In the emerging global economy, there are two forces at work on how technology of all varieties is created and sold in the marketplace: those who espouse the virtues of a proprietary approach and they who advocate strict adherence to existing standards. While the former group is often responsible for the greatest measure of innovation in the marketplace, ultimately they too have a desire to reap the benefits realised by way of the interoperability facilitated by adoption of standards – those of their own design. These they seek to foist upon the public and industry stakeholders in hopes of securing mind and marketshare. So what does that mean to us?

While the last thing I would consider myself would be a luddite, I find the lack of standardisation in so many functionally identical devices turning me into the proverbial "grumpy old man". Why is it that every time I go to gas station to make my little contribution to global warming I have to learn how to use a new machine? Were the old ones so inefficient? I understand the desire for improved traffic flow by the implementation of these "wired" pumps, but have you noticed the lines at the gas station getting any shorter? In the time it takes me to decipher the cryptic instructions on yet another gas pump designed by some flunky with clearly no education at all in human factors or interface design, I could have pumped my fuel, paid the attendant and been on my way.

The same frustration applies to bank machines. Let's face it, they all perform identical functions, so why do they need to be so vastly different? Is it any wonder the elderly woman in line before you is pulling out a quantity of blue hair in consternation while you quietly fume behind?

Who's the genius that decided that numbers on a calculator or computer keypad should have 7,8,9 on the top row while the telephone has 1,2,3? ... and why do the letter designations start on the number 2, end on 9 and omit Q and Z? Was the designer of this system sniffing glue for his inspiration? While I was abroad, I attempted to access my office toll-free line which I remember as 1-877-MNDSPAN. Unfortunately there are no letters on telephones over there and forgetting that they start on the number 2, I was unable to complete my call. My cellular telephone didn't work either as the GSM standard was being utilised which, of course, my phone doesn't recognise.

Fortunately there are some standards that are ubiquitous. The fact that I can go to any gas station on the planet and feel confident that the pump will fit my receptacle,  points to the fact that some visionary choose to abandon potential profits which may have been realised by the sale of "Ford Gasoline". So what's my point? Microsoft is adopting that exact abandoned strategy!

Scant years back, with approximately 80 percent of the planet's desktop computing power running (I use that term loosely) on MS Gas, Mr. Bill was quite content to sit high atop his billions surveying the empire that was his and his alone. Then, out of left field emerged the Internet and everything changed. The ensuing browser war was about much more than which piece of software would more effectively render HTML. In reality, it was an effort to seize total control over the biggest prize ever: the planet's IT infrastructure.

While Microsoft enjoyed almost total domination of the desktop market, most server rooms and the Internet ran on UNIX and represented a significant threat to the corporation. Why? The power of peer-to-peer computing (which is only now being exploited by the likes of Napster) as well as the re-emergence of the thin client demonstrated to MS that there was a paradigm shift in the making which would see the network become the computer. If Microsoft didn't power that network, competing desktops would emerge which would take equal advantage of the open standards inherent in the Internet to build a better mousetrap... potentially usurping Microsoft's desktop dominance.

From the outset, Microsoft sought to inject proprietary features into their browser - custom tags, their own version of Java, Active-X and the like and secured a seat on the WC3, enabling them to steer "standards" their own way. Next MS released Front Page: a piece of software which while under the guise of user-friendliness actually by default produces so much Microsoft proprietary code which only runs on NT servers that serious web developers dismissed it out of hand. Microsoft however, didn't care in the least – after all it was appealing to its user base of millions who didn't know what was under the hood and didn't want to as long as their web page looked pretty. The fact that Internet Explorer executes malformed HTML with ease while Netscape will (appropriately so) choke, points to the fact that MS was targeting non technically sophisticated user with its products.

Next, realising that the majority of users don't bother to download new browser versions if there is an existing one on the desktop, Microsoft dealt the coup de gras to all potential competitors by incorporating IE within the OS. These strategies over time paid great dividends, not only by squeezing out the competition in the browser market – this is obviously trivial (otherwise why would they offer it for free?) but by gaining a significant toehold in the enterprise and Internet server market which is growing daily. Now the real battle is being waged between the upstart Linux and MS for the server room... and how will MS win? "Standards".

There are now an incredible number of proprietary Internet components (which are usually long on cool and short on utility) that are currently deemed essential to the web browsing experience. All of these components have to be served up by something, and human nature being what it is, will we see administrators taking the path of least resistance by implementing a server which supports them natively or spending time scratching their heads trying to piece some solution together? Look for the "blue screen of death" on your wired tombstone.

Originally published in HUB: Digital Living magazine, March, 2001, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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