Why Multiple Competing Standards are a Bad Idea

A good look at why multiple competing products using an open standard is good, but multiple competing standards that do almost the exact same thing are not:

I guess one good result is that Microsoft has encouraged voting for OpenDocument, because that’s the only logical thing it can do if it really believes that having “many conflicting formats are a good thing”. In contrast, there’s no reason that someone who wants a truly open single format needs to vote for OOXML. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject OOXML on the grounds that it conflicts with an already-existing ISO standard (OpenDocument). If there’s something that OOXML does that OpenDocument doesn’t, it would be much easier to add that tweak to OpenDocument, because OpenDocument builds on existing standards while OOXML fails to do so.

Microsoft is not a “universal evil”, and I praise them when they do good things. But encouraging multiple conflicting standards for the same area is not a good thing. In some sense, I don’t care if MS XML or ODF become “the” format for office documents, as long as the final specification is truly open. But the materials noted above lead me to believe that MS XML is not really open; it appears to be effectively controlled by one vendor, both in its current and future forms, as one obvious example. So MS XML isn’t really an option, and we already have a nice working solution.

What I want is a single document format that is fully open. What’s that mean? See Is OpenDocument an Open Standard? Yes! to see what the phrase “open standard” really means. And let’s look at it in practice. Currently I can edit text documents using the program “vim”, and I don’t even bother to ask if the other person uses emacs, or Notepad… just by saying “simple text format” we can exchange our files. Similarly, I can edit a GIF or PNG file without wondering what originally created the file – or who will edit it next. That’s generally true with other standards like HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP. That’s the beauty of open standards – real open standards enable a thriving industry of competing products, allowing users to choose and re-choose between them. I want to see that beautiful sunlight in office suites as well.

Interestingly, the issue of a single rail gauge standard during the civil war has come up in at least three recent examples that I can think of.

–jeremy

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