Getting down to business on open standards

I'd be surprised to find anyone in IT who has never run across the "If cars were like PCs" joke. ("If cars were like PCs, they'd crash every few miles . . . They'd ask, 'Are you sure?' before deploying air bags," and so on.)Well, cars and PCs are a lot alike. Take open standards. This term isn't too far from the idea of the open road. Everyone has to agree to a certain set of rules. All cars require wheels, brakes and steering, among other things. Where the comparison ends, however, is that each carmaker can fiddle with the components to make its models dominate the road. That's called healthy competition.

Microsoft calls this approach "embrace and extend". Sun Microsystems didn't like Microsoft's extended embrace of Java, or maybe got angry at those tests that showed Java running better on PCs running Microsoft's Virtual Machine than on its own Solaris boxes. Whatever - Sun sued.

If I souped up my car, I might void my warranty, but GM, Ford or Audi wouldn't sue me for it. In any case, "write once, run anywhere" was, is and remains a pipe dream.

Besides, open standards shouldn't equal Soviet-style conformity. I think it means, "Build it and they will come - and redecorate".

In August, Sun sued Microsoft in Europe, claiming that Microsoft hurt it by withholding some application programming interfaces. Well, that's any developer's prerogative. Microsoft isn't in the business of making life easy for Sun or anyone else. Is your business operated that way?

Open-source is the handmaiden of open standards. The problem with it is that its real meaning is, "We don't expect to make a dime from this". Sun's singing the praises of open standards and open-source (such as StarOffice) rings about as honest in this context as Bill Gates denying that Microsoft wanted to hurt Netscape.

Life's hard, and business is even harder. Instead of whining, combing through trash and rhapsodising about money-losing pipe dreams, Sun, Oracle and whoever else loathes Microsoft ought to get down to business and just compete.

Microsoft works hard on its own car. If 10 per cent of the energy and vitriol that McNealy and Ellison spend chiding Microsoft got spent on their own companies' visions, who knows what could happen?

* Alex Torralbas is an independent IT consultant and Visual Basic developer in New York.

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