Run! It’s a Standard!

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Still have yet to complete the language performance post; not only has my schedule refused to comply, but there’s new material still being generated that I need to take into account. To that end, if everyone would kindly stop writing anything related to language performance for the next, oh, two days, that’d be greeeattt, mmm’kay?

In the interim, however, I wanted to elevate one point/question I raised in our podcast with the always intelligent Jason Matusow of Microsoft earlier this week. While you can be forgiven for not having listened to it yet, because the audio quality is suspect after we resorted to a non-traditional recording setup, some of the points raised and discussed were worth discussing further, IMO.[1] Among them was my question first put to Jason, then to my colleagues, and now to you: do you know of any instances where standardization eliminated or otherwise destroyed a business?

I asked the question not to put anybody on the spot, but rather because I’m very interested in an answer. There have to be examples, but we didn’t manage to come up with any on the call, and I find that interesting.

Interesting for many reasons, but principally because it’s self-evident to me that while standards are nearly always good for both customers and vendors, the latter always approach them terribly cautiously. Matusow, for his part, made the point that standards are but one among many approaches to growing a market, and I agree with that. Considering the different approaches, however, it would appear that standardization is tough to beat in terms of effectiveness.

As my more intelligent colleague pointed out, consider the Blu-Ray v HD-DVD fiasco, which to my admittedly uneducated eyes seems like little more than a 21st century repeat of the Betamax v VHS battle. That lack of standardization taught me something simple. We were one of the five or six families in the country that owned a Betamax player, and our local video store stocked a grand total of maybe 5 Betamax titles (compared to the dozens available for VHS). As a result, every trip to the movie store resulted in the same rental; I watched Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings around 9,000 times. While I loved the film at the time, and still care for it a great deal (I have it on the standard DVD format), I can say with absolute confidence that based on that experience I’m probably not going to invest a dime into any new DVD equipment until they standardize. The Lord of the Rings was good, you know, but not that good.

That is, of course, strictly a customer perspective, and vendors have – rightfully so – an entirely different set of concerns on top of making their customers happy. But are they occasionally – even commonly – a bit overzealous in protecting their turf? I think so. On the podcast I brought up the subject of the Flickr/Zooomr API controversy. On the face of it, this would seem like a bad example. Flickr’s API meets none of the traditional definitions of a “standard.” It hasn’t been submitted to any standards body, it wasn’t designed by a committee of multiple parties, and it has not been ratified by anyone other than Flickr. It practice, however, it’s very similar to standards in that it permits – potentially, anyway – interoperation between two or more parties. As Simon noted in his seminal “Freedom to Leave” piece, the Flickr folks did the right thing in the end, granting API access to those who responded in kind – giving Flickr users such as Simon or myself the Freedom to Leave. But before that happened, their initial protective stance towards the API earned them the scorn of The Voice of Lon…er, Web 2.0.

Which brings me back to the question. Can any of you cite examples where standards – real or practical – have resulted in the demise of a commercial entity? You’d think that the world would be teeming with examples given the fear with which standards are often regarded by vendors, but I’m short on a justification for that position. If you’re not, I’d appreciate being enlightened.

[1] Note to Dalibor: I did indeed ask the “is the OSP a template for future behavior” question. The answer? We’re always willing to listen to feedback about other areas where the promise could be extended, but we have no further plans to announce at this time.


  1. I don’t think you’ll find many examples. Any company that earnestly avoids a standard is basically admitting that they have an inferior product.

    If they *do* have an inferior product, they’ll probablly get left in the dust *eventually* without standardizing.

    If they *don’t* have an inferior product, they’ll eventually open up to the standard and continue to suceed in the marketplace.

  2. All of Netscape’s products- browser, server- were easily bumped off because all they did that was useful was serve standardized (http, html) data. Ditto early email products knocked off by Outlook; note that there are plenty of competitors to Outlook/Exchange in the email space but very few in the calendar space, where there is no standard worth a damn.

    Arguably having file formats/UI conventions that were reverse-engineerable and not patented contributed significantly to the decline of WP and Lotus, too; if those had been standardized it would have made the job even easier for Office. Ditto for Unix->Linux.

  3. I was part of an engineering effort whose goal was to implement support for a standard in a large application: a lot of the resistance came from several Architects who didn’t like the standard (because they didn’t write it) and several customers who would, as a result of a lack of a particular kind of extensibility in the standard, lose functionality.

    In the Enterprise space, implementing standards leads to an increase of business in the medium and long terms, yes, but in the short term it pisses off the customers you *do* have whose needs are not being serviced as a result of Engineering being off on some wild goose chase that isn’t provably going to make any money.

  4. >Which brings me back to the question. Can any of you cite examples where standards – real or practical – have resulted in the demise of a commercial entity?

    I’m sure there are lots of XML database companies that died because the industry bet on W3C XQuery which is still not a ratified standard today instead of going for something simpler. I’m sure XSD has killed a similar number of web services projects [if not companies].

    Anyway, your question is pretty ambiguous. Are you asking whether resistance to standards or adoption of a standard has led to demise of a commercial entity? Isn’t BETAMAX vs. VHS an example of this happening? One became a standard and the other didn’t. I’m sure some companies died because they bet on BETAMAX.

  5. Luis, I thought Netscape’s products were killed off because Microsoft’s versions “embraced and extended” those open standards.

  6. They were killed because they had no defensible edge- any one of their competitors could embrace and extend the standard. Embrace and extend is much, much easier when your opponent is committed to implementing and defending an open standard, instead of one that they themselves can also extend competitively and defensibly.

  7. There’s an argument that says that SMTP effectively put CompuServe’s killer app out of business…

  8. Danno: as a rule of thumb, i think that’s mostly true, but there have to be exceptions – and painful ones.

    Luis: don’t know that i’d subscribe to the notion that Netscape was undone by standards, per se. certainly that leveled the playing field, but i think the bigger problem was their lack of innovation. as i understand the history, development stagnated and ultimately resulted in the Mozilla bloat.

    plus, the server products didn’t really suffer the same fate, they lived on first in the Sun server offerings and more recently Red Hat’s identity suite.

    net net, standards played a role, but i don’t think standards were necessarily the primary problem.

    it’s also worth mentioning the uniqueness of Microsoft’s role in the industry.

    Dan: points well taken, and certainly standardization is never easy and clearly not painless. it does seem the surest guarantee to volume opportunities, however.

    Dare: interesting. i can’t think of any XML datastore companies off the top of my head, but maybe that’s your point. be interested if folks have examples.

    apologies for the ambiguity. the question is predicated on the belief that companies tend to be resistant to standardization – unnecessarily so, IMO, given that over the long haul they usually grow markets. so what i’m trying to determine is when and where standardization has been bad – are their concerns legitimate?

    i’d personally be very surprised if too many folks went out of business by betting on Betamax. as i recall, our betamax player was a Sony, and they’re still alive and kicking. the smaller manufacturers i’d be willing to bet hedged their bets. but maybe i’m wrong.

    Danno/Luis: they were killed, i think, because they tangled with a uniquely entrenched monopoly who offered the same product they did for free, cutting off their air supply. they had no business, in other words. standards played a role there, but the same standards clearly aren’t throttling the browser market right now – just the business opportunity. Netscape was doomed whether or not the standards were in place.

    Joe: interesting notion…i don’t know that i can refute that one.

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