The Importance of Software Standards

In a local office somewhere near you, someone wants to send someone else a electronic document. Once there was a fairly broad agreement about the way such documents were prepared and delivered, before the advent of the computers and the Internet.

Today there is also a fairly universal agreement about how such tasks are carried out, central to achieving this fairly common task is the ubiquitous Microsoft Word. With a form of Windows on virtually every corporate desktop, the pervasiveness of Word documents in business is understandable. MS Word and .doc may appear to be a standard way of doing business but are they a standard?

The wholesale adoption by large corporations and government of .doc as a standard form of electronic documentation is profoundly wrong, it is largely responsible for the single largest amassed fortune in recent history and has unfortunately also created a defacto standard that undermines a fundamental process in the world of business and government, the process of standardization.

What do we mean by standards anyway? Why bother? How do they fit into the computing picture?

Standards are relatively commonplace and provide important functions in the world of commerce and industry. Ranging from common standards for measurements to complex standards for business accounting, they help to define benchmarks by which things or processes can be measured.

Ok I hear you say, we have standards for how food might be prepared and how much is a gallon of fuel or what voltage comes out of your wall outlet, but how do we apply standards to the evolving world of computing? A number of organizations are charged with just that task. Bodies such as W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) who develop a range of specifications and guidelines for technologies that power the Internet. In the wider world, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which publishes over 14,000 standards, has recognized the importance of what they term “E-business”. They are currently publishing a memorandum of understanding that begins like this:

“E-business is becoming a cornerstone of the world economy …
Full benefits for consumers, industry and government demand a coherent set of Information and Communication Technology standards which are:
1. open
2. interoperable
3. internationally accepted”.
This memorandum of understanding has the support of other standards organizations like IEC and ITU.

What helps to define such organizations and provide them with their authority is the need in business, industry and government for STANDARDS. These bodies and others like them have a variety of members with their own viewpoints, who are unified in their desire to provide a common platform for their own benefit which also benefits the general public. Have a look at the membership of the W3C and you get the idea. There is a very diverse range of interests represented by the membership of W3C.

So standards are a good thing. But back to the discussion about MS Word.

If you search through the Library of Congress subject catalog you will find a couple of references to some current “standards” in computer software that are interesting. Aside from the references to such things as Base Computer Standards, version 2.0. which was published in 1995, there are books about “Microsoft .NET framework – 2001” and “Java data objects – 2002”. Books about software standards are likely to be quickly dated however the library’s catalog items seem to point to the area of software environments.

A quick Google search for something like “Desktop Computer Standards” results in a list that seem to indicate that the “standard” Desktop Computer is a PC running some form of Windows! Similarly, results from a search for computer software standards turns up a surprising number of references to Microsoft and Windows and Word and .NET. This simple search also highlights the common perception that because something comes pre-installed on a PC then that software is the standard. This is often aided and abetted by advertising which proclaims that your new computer comes “standard” with the latest version of Windows and Office.

Microsoft Windows and its product family are not standards. At best they are defacto standards, more accurately they are simply the “standard” offerings from a specific vendor. .NET may become another another defacto standard for world, courtesy of Microsoft.

Remember the bit about standards and how they are developed? I would draw your attention to the bit about independent member organizations making informed decisions. Whilst we have agreed standards for publishing on the net with HTML and XHML for example, standards that are open for all of those who care to look, no such standard exist for coding a document to adhere to the Microsoft Word “standard”. Why? Because by its very nature MS Word is not a standard, it is merely a common form of word processing.

The very good people at Microsoft (and others) might disagree with me here, and just as likely point to a variety of standards that do apply to Microsoft products, which is good because I will certainly sleep better knowing that Microsoft adheres to other peoples rules as much as it would like the rest of the world to adhere to the rules of Microsoft. But I digress.

Standards have a definite benefit for the end user. Having standards for making nuts and bolts, benefits almost all of us, particularly if we happen to flying across the world, thousands of meters up in the sky. But tangible items like nuts and bolts and mundane tasks like book keeping are fairly straightforward. How would we go about defining a standard for word processing, or any other common piece of computer software? Can we define a standard for something that seems to undergo almost daily transformation or should we just accept that real standards do not apply here, and the defacto standards are the best we can get?

If we want to able to take our nuts and bolts and build a better airplane, then we need standards. If we want to take the tools that computers provide us and build a better tomorrow, then we need standards. And if we continue to allow defacto standards that are propagated by powerful vested interests to supplant real and measurable standards, then opportunities for future development will defined by closed boardroom decisions and their market strategies.

Governments can play a key role is this process, one which does NOT seek to tell the software business what to do, merely how they should do it. Standards are a big deal for democratic governments and rightly so. By demanding and then adhering to standards in software applications, the existing closed shop situation is turned on its head, without the need to proscriptive legislation. Sure you can continue to use the old product, provided it meets the standard, but then you are also free to use a competing product because it also meets the required standard. If governments adopt standards based formats, this in turn will drive business and so on.

Unfortunately, standardization of computer documents has not achieved the uniformity that is hallmark of web publishing. The lack of an agreed format is conspicuous, the void is filled by a the dominant format (.doc) with clear financial benefit to its vendor. Microsoft can clearly afford to ignore calls for an open standard, just as clearly, it has by far the most to lose from an open document standard.

The subject of closed formats is a part of the overall discussion on open source software. The importance of a suitable document format, which sounds simple, cannot be understated. Consider the Internet with its profusion of content, and users who can access an array of services based on common protocols. The success of the Internet is directly related to wholesale adoption of standards. The widespread adoption of a suite of open standards for computer documents would create a software environment that encourages innovation rather than current monopolistic regime.

In the next article I will explore some of the current developments in computer document standards.

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