In early March, I happened to be in Washington meeting with Ed Markey. It turns out that the incredibly important words that required the $6.6 billion in smart grid demonstration projects to use "open standards and internet protocol" was his amendment! These words were modified in the final Economic Recovery Act by industry lobbyists to include "where available and appropriate."
I was in Markey’s office to explain to him why these same words should be applied to wireless demonstration projects in the transportation sector, in health care digitization efforts, and likely in education, although I don’t know. Markey was excited by my interest, and wondered if I could explain to the layperson why open standards mattered.
A week and a half later, I bumped into a state Secretary of Energy – one of the very people who would get to spend the smart grid demonstration project money. This person didn’t understand the implications of “open standards” and asked me to explain it. Over the course of the last month, I’ve met with high level officials in transportation, energy, and environment positions from several states, none of whom understood the value of openness.
We are about to spend billions and billions of taxpayer dollars on technology infrastructure and many of those advising precisely what to buy have every incentive to say that closed proprietary systems, networks, devices are the best way to go. How does this missed opportunity make you feel?
A friend blogged on this subject and I loved his headline:
Using Public Dollars to Build Proprietary Systems?
Proprietary systems have their own secret languages and secret rules. You can play only if you are invited in (by buying the ratified stuff) and you can only play the games agreed upon (your ideas for new games or new ways to play the old games are unwelcome, unheard, and impossible to incorporate). Examples of closed proprietary systems abound, but a nice irritating example would be how you have to throw away your current cell phone if you want to change carriers.
Open standards mean that different people/companies/devices could, if they wanted to, find common ground.
Here, excerpted from a piece David Reed wrote for The MIT Communications Futures Program Principal Investigator Blog is a nice description of how the internet -- which is an open standard -- works:
“The Internet is a set of agreements among members (who happen to control small, medium, and large networks). The agreement required members to carry each others’ packets, delivering them via best efforts to the hosts at the edge of the network—your laptop, Google’s server…each member of the Internet who contributed to the mutual enterprise gained connectivity disproportionate to the member’s contribution.”
As David puts it, "The Internet is not a technology, but a set of interoperable standards."
Open standards give the ability to evolve over time.
Sure, proprietary systems can evolve, the speed depending entirely on competitive pressures. Most government contracts come with nice long contracts: three, five, ten, and even 99 year terms! Why bother to innovate during the first seven years of a ten-year contract? Steve Crocker, one of the Internet’s founding fathers, wrote a really wonderful piece for the New York Times that describes how the Internet’s open standards were able to evolve over time. As he told me “We had no idea when we started [forty years ago] that this is where we’d end up.” Of course, who among us can predict the future?
Another friend offered a simple test: “If you think this is the final and best version, buy the closed proprietary system. If you think it will continue to evolve over time, go open.”
Open standards invite and encourage participation
From a Steve Crocker email “Open standards become particularly important when they enable new products and services to be built on top of existing ones. Openness is not just about enabling others to build the same products and services and compete directly. It’s also about enabling huge vistas of new inventions that brings the enormous expansion and payoff from new technologies.”
I'll close with Steve's penultimate paragraph from the NYT:
“As we rebuild our economy, I do hope we keep in mind the value of openness, especially in industries that have rarely had it. Whether it’s in health care reform or energy innovation -- [OR smart transportation adds Robin] -- the largest payoffs will come not from what the stimulus package pays for directly, but from the huge vistas we open up for others to explore.”
Some interesting links about open standards not referenced in the above:
In health care and in promoting multimodal transportation.