Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bill Gates and open standards

In 1997, in my previous avatar as a journalist, I had interviewed Bill Gates. What a different world that was!

That was his first visit to India and the fanfare would have made you believe that this was a head of state visit. Microsoft had just crushed Netscape in the great internet wars and seemed completely indomitable. I was extremely keen to meet the man who sat at the very center of the desktop universe to understand what his next move would be.

One of the biggest changes from 1997 to 2007 is that the desktop rapidly diminished into being a subset of the Internet universe. The focus of users shifted from being limited to their desktops to collaboration and communication via the Net. I remember that my first PC was bought in 1994 and I soon got bored of it until my 1200 baud modem was purchased in 1995. It was as if a whole new universe was now available to me through my rasping, screeching modem. Of couse, none of us, including Bill Gates, expected this universe to expand so rapidly.

One of the factors (and consequences) of the growth of the Internet was that open standards became more popular. The Internet itself would not have existed without open standards. One consequence that I could notice around 1997-2003 was that new file formats for audio and video and other forms of data emeerged that were no longer tightly tied down to the desktop. My term for it, at that time, was Platform Independent File Formats (PIFF). Looking back, the PIFF observation was a good one as far as trends go. However, having file formats that are independent of the underlying platform is not good enough and this is where open standards come back into the picture. If I create a document, the document belongs to me. However, if I made the mistake of creating it in a proprietary file format, the only way I can decode it faithfully is by using that proprietary vendor's application or try my best to reverse engineer that file format. That is like buying a house but while I own the house, the builder owns the keys to *my* house. Not a good idea right?

I have blogged about this in my article "The importance of Open Standards." In a world of truly open standards, monopoly pricing cannot be guaranteed. And that world is not far away because users clearly understand the alue of open standards and the impact it can have on their lives.