Why more standards mean less competition

The Open Forum Europe (OFE), one of Europe’s industry groups, has published a white paper on Dual Standards that is available for download as PDF.

Since Microsoft is making the claim that competition on standards is a good thing, this is something that should be read by all people active in the MS-OOXML vs ODF debate, in particular if they are working in the national standardisation bodies that will get to vote in ISO/IEC.

Although it is counterintuitive for some people at first, there is a reason why standardisation ultimately has the goal to arrive at only one standard per function.

Adding more standards will simply undermine the value of each of them, and reduce competition, because competition should happen on the basis of the implementation, product and program — not on the grounds of the standard.

There are several real-life examples that might help someone not familiar with the debate to understand the issue:

  • Power Plugs: If we had multiple, vendor specific power plugs in each country that only fit into electricity supplier specific sockets, we could normally only buy appliances of the vendor that has the plugs fitting into the sockets in our house.
  • Car controls: If every car manufacturer had dramatically different ways of controlling the car, we would need manufacturer-specific driving licenses and could only buy cars from the manufacturer for which we have a license and to which we have gotten used.

Both these examples fall short in their complexity when compared to the office document issue, as the 6000+ pages specification for MS-OOXML  demonstrates quite well. And that documentation is still woefully incomplete, as it lacks the full description of all the proprietary components referenced in MS-OOXML.

When taking this into account (and thus ruling out fully functional power converters, for instance) it should become immediately clear why this does not help competition.

In fact, the power image might even carry a litte further:

One electricity company has a monopoly consisting of 95% market share in households covered. But this company also builds  and sells appliances, a market in which competition is much stronger. So it suddenly changes its power sockets such that other appliance manufacturers can no longer build devices that work well these sockets.

In order to hide the fact, the manufacturer calls these sockets "OpenSockets" and asks for ISO certification — regardless of the fact that noone else will ever be able to build plugs that fit well into these sockets. But even if someone were to manage that, they could probably still be sued.

In order to then placate criticism for introducing another standard and to increase the chance of ISO acceptance, the company then seeks to justify itself with the idea of competition of the standards and accuses the other appliance manufacturers of foul play.

This seems a somewhat fitting metaphor of what is really happening around MS-OOXML.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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