Tuesday, September 13, 2005

When open standards really matter

Pamela Jones has been thinking about open standards in the aftermath of the hurricane.
If you have any doubts about the direction Massachusetts is following in requiring open standards for all government documents, consider what happened when Hurricane Katrina knocked out almost all communications except the Internet...
There are discussions between the government and companies about how to be better prepared next time and particularly how to set up the Internet to be a primary communications system for emergencies. Note what Microsoft is proposing:
Many industry executives are already talking about how to insure a less ad hoc response to the next disaster. For instance, Microsoft’s Markezich says the industry needs to develop common standards using the XML language (which enables software applications to interoperate), so information can be shared across sites in an emergency.

Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Markezich, but adds one serious caveat: “We ought to agree on a set of standards through which the government and private agencies can provide emergency services, but in no case should a company name be attached to those services.” Schwartz was alarmed this week when FEMA announced that online applications for Federal Disaster Assistance would only be accepted from victims who use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser. “I’d hate to see a day when one company would have to be paid before relief could come to a community,” he says...
While it may not bother Microsoft to have everyone required to buy and use their products in a disaster or to be able to communicate in an emergency, it bothers me a great deal, because I don't use their products. I don't trust their products to work reliably, for one thing. I heard on the news that the FEMA servers kept crashing. And I don't wish to be forced to use any one company's products, period. I'd be one of the dead bodies they find two weeks later, I'm afraid, because I won't be able to communicate, to let people know to come and rescue me.

Microsoft's answer to that is that I should just use their products. Monopolies always want everyone to have to have to use their products. Why wouldn't they want that? It's their bread and butter...

It is the role of government to protect the lives and property of citizens, to look after us. Didn't you feel that deeply when watching Katrina's aftermath? If governments don't play that role, then it's just every man for himself, and while the human spirit is more reliably kind than corporations or governments, as we've witnessed, the truth is that some things are too big for individuals to handle on their own. So we can be so grateful to those who built the Internet for us, that they chose not to make a bundle for themselves by patenting every bit of it and them balkanizing it into proprietary fiefdoms, but gave thought to creating a fail-safe communications system, something you can rely on no matter what. And it worked. Of course, it was the government that did that. I shudder to think what Microsoft would have done, if it had invented the Internet. Every bit of it would be patented, and we'd all be paying through the nose and would be restricted to whatever Microsoft chose to let us do.

She is possibly being a bit hard on Microsoft but she absolutely has a point about open standards.

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