Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Terms of Enduring Interoperability

Once again, great coverage and discussion at Groklaw: GROKLAW So, what does an AMD anti trust - illegal collusion and racketeering lawsuit against the WinTel monopoly have in common with the rise of Open Source Communities and the increasing imporatance of Open Stnadards work? Both are based on WinTel breakign with the cornerstone of the empire, the X86 - Win32 API franchise. Perhaps the greatest monopolistic franchise ever conceived and executed. An interoperability cartel now crashing. An essential carrier set ablaze. Here's my take on a story just beginning to unfold, "The AMD Subpoena to Microsoft": Two steps forward, one step back. Time to clean up the mess that was WinTel, once and for all. The AMD story is one for the ages. They took a wild, beyond risky shot at taking on the Tel part of the WinTel empire. And somehow they won. The risk they took was based on a government mandate that Intel license the X86 architecture to would be competitors. This mandate reminds me of the DOJ settlement with Microsoft mandating that Microsoft license the middleware API's to would be server, device and desktop competitors. Intel however agreed to offer comparatively reasonable licensing terms that, although reasonable, would no doubt preserve the serious advantage they had. While Microsoft was allowed to charge whatever they wanted – as in whatever was reasonable in light of their efforts to extend their monopolist domain. The only requirement being that some MS cartel members would actually pay the price asked for access to the monopolist jewels. Intel had to provide equal access. Microsoft continues to operate as if this inside information was a special permission that comes with strings and obligations. Against all odds, AMD took a long shot and prevailed, catching and tripping Intel exactly where Intel tried to replace the 32 bit X86 architecture with a newly proprietary IA-64 instruction set. From Wikipedia, “the IA-64 (Intel Architecture-64) is a 64-bit processor architecture developed in cooperation by Intel and Hewlett-Packard, implemented by processors such as Itanium and Itanium 2. The goal of Itanium was to produce a "post-RISC era" architecture using EPIC.” Translated, the new IA-64 instruction set was not compatible with the old X86 set. AMD developed an AMD64 bit extension to the X86 set, and achieved far better performance, able to run with the vast investment in X86 legacy applications written to the Win32 API. The IA-X86 escape instructions Intel came up with to run the wealth of legacy Win32 API applications totally bombed. Intel eventually choose licensing the AMD64 set over being driven out of business. Talk about turning the tables! And now AMD has enough power and influence to exact revenge and demand enforcement of the Rule of Law. Finally. I don't doubt for a second that Microsoft isn't in a similar position today. The critical point is again the legacy of Win32 bound applications, services and business processes. Almost the entire monopoly base of 450 million desktops is bound to the Win32 API. Yet, here's Microsoft pushing forward with a .NET – WinFX – XAML – C# - MSECMAXML bound XP-Vista stack. The Win32 API and all those legacy Windows desktops are being EOL'd, support, maintenance and security fixes having long ago ceased. Even on XP Professional there are serious problems for legacy Win32 applications and drivers, rendering whole application libraries and business processes next to useless. It will be far worse when Vista is released. Here's the thing; there is no AMD type corporate competitor in place to step into the Win32 API breach, and carry those 450 million desktops into the age collaborative computing. And do so with consumer legacy code investments intact and performing as expected. What we have instead is a gaggle of cross platform open source efforts able to deliver collaborative computing within the Win32 API boundaries. Lead by core productivity components, OpenOffice.org and Mozilla.org, a cross platform open stack of applications able to provision an XML ready desktop productivity environment is just a download away. If KOffice ever makes it to the Win32 API, all hell is going to break loose, and Microsoft will have to fight like crazy to hang on to their monopoly. The empiric half of the WinTel empire will be facing the ultimate challenge; being undercut by outsiders who are seizing a rare moment in time. The moment when Microsoft abandons the Win32 API, and tries to force march at great cost and disruption, an angry user base. Marching them into a collaborative computing future. Ever under the iron fisted control of Redmond, this time across the entire integrated stack of XP-Vista OS, desktop applications, middleware, API's, devices and server suites. AMD got into position via their own tenacity and a long overdue government mandate. Microsoft is exposed because of a hubris so elevated, so nauseating, that they have lost all respect for developer network, their vast cartel of trading partners, and the legendary user base long the envy of furtive monopolist and empiric dreamers the world over. They were found guilty of some of the most illegal and reprehensible business practices ever brought before a court of law. Activities so lacking in any ethical or moral grounding as to make Enron execs look like a bunch of boyscout's gone bad with some wayward copies of National Geographic. And they got away with it. Hence a hubris and disdainful disrespect unlike anything we've ever seen. Thinking about it, i now wonder if the current DOJ Settlement was crafted in a fashion similar to the Intel mandate that gave AMD a second life. Obviously the European Union disagrees. They want those XP-Vista middleware API's released without encumbrances or access barriers. IMHO, the heart of the deliciously named Microsoft Anti Trust trial was the issue of an essential carrier. In the case of the X86 instruction set, Intel was alleged to be an essential carrier of computation. In the case of Microsoft, Windows was found to be an essential carrier of computational applications and services. There is something about connectivity, transport and messaging“carriers” that the laws of efficient use of shared resources and public access are warped into non competitive arrangements. Things like bridges, railroads, turnpikes, cable, copper wires, electrical transmission, radio frequencies, and computational platforms have led to either public ownership or public regulation. The one thing we don't find is competition. Building a second Golden Gate Bridge to compete right along side the original just doesn't make any sense. With Open Standards and open architectures, it's entirely possible to build computational systems out of highly competitive components. Possible as long as everyone agrees to the open standards for interfaces, protocols and methods that make such interoperability between competing components possible. But who has the foresight to predict which technologies will become essential carriers? Is it possible that we are now entering an age when the challenge of winning critical mindshare and marketshare is terminally clouded by concerns over open standards, open Architectures, and open licensing models? I think so. I think the days of the X86, Windows OS, and the controlling dominance of the Win32 API are gone forever. Lesson learned. Now the challenge is to break loose from our sordid past, and never make the same mistake again. The answer to the essential computational carrier question is now bound up with concerns for open standards and the methodologies of open interoperability. The balance now sways with open source communities who excel in both these areas. Things are changing. Perhaps much faster than vendors suspect. The old game had these rules; if a vendor, or royalty sharing consortia of vendors can set the “standards” for how things connect, interface, interact and exchange, they can control markets. Control the terms of interoperability, and you get to drive price and eliminate competition for years to come. Through control of standards and the standards process, ruthless supply side opportunist could dictate the terms of demand. Brian Behlendorf comments that there are only two industries that refer to their customers as “users”. Both industries share the characteristics of extremely high profits for those who are in control; and, collusion between would be competitors to carve up markets, eliminate competition, control of supply, distribution, and the terms of demand so that high profits are perpetually maintained. In one industry these activities are illegal, even declared to be a threat to national security and the well being of civilization. In the other, these same activities are for the most part legal unless and until a monopoly has been officially declared. Governments declaring at that point that such collusion has gone to far, open and competitive markets need be restored, and the Rule of Law (especially contract law) enforced. Information technology consumers who get hooked on a suppliers proprietary standards are continually pushed to purchase more from that providers cartel in a never ending cycle of higher prices for less functionality. There are two ways for consumers and outside the cartel technology providers to get back in the game; Open Standards and Open Source implementations of those standards. Personally i don't believe one is possible without the other. Least ways not in a meaningful, lasting manner that truly guarantees that markets will remain open and competitive, and, that consumers will finally be able to take ownership of both their information and their information processes. The emerging relationship between the open standards process, FLOSS influence, and participation in that process is exactly how the rules of the game are changing. It's still early in the day though. That FLOSS was central to the build out of the Internet is beyond doubt. A few open protocols, methods, and interfaces quietly brought the Internet to the point of notice as an alternative platform of communications and collaborative computing. The Netscape IPO brought the Internet into full public awareness, and the race to commercialize what had been a public commons took off. And with that blast off came the effort to assert control through the proprietary twisting of what were soon dubbed “open standards”. Corporate consortia proposals for vendor controlled standards followed the incessant twisting of open standards. Both efforts designed to wrest control of the Internet away from FLOSS and common public use. These efforts were followed by much consortia posturing aimed at fooling the public into thinking that patent encumbered and license restricted standards proposals were actually big letter Open Standards. The days of the Open Internet looked to be numbered. Put me in the camp of those who would argue that Microsoft's war against Netscape and Java were part of a larger effort to seize control of the Internet. Or at least to take command of Internet based opportunities. This first war was followed by an assault against the GPL and Linux, the powerful one two punch at the heart of the exponentially exploding FLOSS community development riding the wave of a global and open Internet. The assault on the GPL and Linux has masked another, perhaps far more serious assault launched on the next generation Internet API, “Open XML”. This shouldn't come as a surprise in that XML is the future of the Open Internet. If you seek to control the Internet, you have to somehow seize control and assert ownership of XML. Since XML is owned, developed and openly licensed by the W3C, it's very difficult to assert patent claims or ownership rights over the basic XML methods and technologies. But given what is at stake, control of the Internet, hungry vendors quickly go to the next best thing: seeking patents over XML methods and implementations – over “how” XML is used - and, asserting consortia control over the standards processes governing these implementations. FLOSS communities have such power of participation and marketshare, that i think they can bring daylight to the corrupt patent assertions , and, balance to the open standards process. FLOSS alternatives to proprietary software and services are proliferating, and with that proliferation comes a greater awareness of the factors of great interoperability: open interfaces, open messaging and communications protocols, open run time engines and libraries, and Open XML technologies – including file formats. What the Open Internet and FLOSS share is that they are each a living, thriving embodiment of how things can connect and work together. They also scream loudly to the world what it is that is lacking in proprietary integrated technologies and consortia controlled standards processes. Their very existence shouts out that indeed, the emperor has no clothes. As the Internet and XML increase in importance, invading every systems stack of software and services known, there is a parallel rise in public awareness of how important Open Standards and Open XML technologies are. Governments are now routinely writing into their requirements binding definitions and demands for Open Standards and Open XML technologies - leaving vendors increasingly less room to wriggle, wrangle and obfuscate. A box that seems to get tighter with each new requirements release. One of the most important movements to watch is that, as the demand side of the information technology marketplace becomes more involved in the open standards process, so too must FLOSS communities. This is happening, but slowly. On the OASIS OpenDocument XML TC, the process was very much multi vendor – multi market driven except for one important factor. The two reference implementations that everyone worked from, and every aspect of the OD XML spec was routinely tested against, were the FLOSS implementations; OpenOffice.org and KOffice. The influence of ever present FLOSS communities worked to insure that there is nothing theoretical about OD XML. Proposals to enhance or change the specification were scrubbed by community developers and project managers before making it into the formal specification. The proposals were public, and so was the participation in how implementation issues were resolved. This benefited the vendors involved in that they didn't have to disclose trade secrets or compromise their corporate works by participating in the collaborative process demanded to prove out a particular proposal. The OD XML spec benefited in that it was road tested at the proposal level by a widely divergent but highly collaborative group of developers. The participants were familiar with an impossibly wide range of issues, spanning from possible interfaces, across platforms and systems infrastructures, and into the many layers of interoperability demanded by legacy connectivity and compatibility with emerging collaborative computing needs. No matter what the problem, someone somewhere on the Open Internet had been working on that same problem, and were more than willing to contribute their expertise. The OASIS ODF TC work now extends through four primary information domains: the desktop productivity environment; publication, content and archive management systems; SOA efforts; and the Open Internet. With Plone CMS ODF round trip capability becoming the most recent announcement. I would argue that the ODF implementations are far more important at this point than the continuing open standards work at OASIS. The ODF 2.0 work will contain some extraordinary advances concerning Accessibility, Open Formula, and a Semantic Web Metadata model. But those enhancements would not make sense, nor would they be proceeding so fast, if not for the expanding ecosystem of often hybrid vendor and FLOSS efforts pushing ODF into parts unknown and uses never dreamed of. In many ways the involvement of FLOSS in the ODF standards process has set the high bar for open standards in general. It may even be a peep into the future, where FLOSS communities work everywhere with vendors and technology consumers to craft open standards certain to accelerate the advance of this digital civilization. If anything, i believe the increasing involvement of FLOSS in Open Standards will help insure that the Open Internet remains owned by none, open and useful to all. The terms of an enduring interoperability are baked into the FLOSS DNA. And that's a good thing. ~ge~

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