When discussing interoperability between products, restrictive conditions such as patents and licensing agreements are often kept out of sight. In a similar fashion, when discussing software patents, their controversial nature is typically concealed under an 'umbrella' called "intellectual property." This leads to unnecessary confusion and has software patents honored in countries where such patents are fundamentally against the law.
Eyes on Europe
A couple of months ago in Europe, an agreement was announced between the European Commission, spearheaded by Commissioner for Competition Neelie Kroes, and Microsoft, which had just lost its antitrust appeal. The agreement embraced a route to further saturation in the server market, but rather than insisting on the use of standards, it seems to have drifted in another direction, which involved interoperability rather than open standards.
But Wait! What About Samba and the GNU GPL?
The agreement in Europe might stifle competition rather than spur any. It does not appeal to Free software developers and it is intrinsically incompatible with the most widely used software license in the world (GNU General Public License). This essentially leaves out in the cold what Microsoft has considered its No. 1 threat for many years.
The Samba project, which is GPL-licensed, enables several operating systems to interact with Microsoft Windows. Windows is ubiquitous, so this is essential. Protocols for file and printer sharing, for instance, are very prevalent in a form that was designed by Microsoft many years ago. None of this design was standardized or published openly, so reverse-engineering work was needed to bridge a critical gap. This made Free software, such as GNU/Linux, more viable in the enterprise.
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With the European Commission's agreement, a great concern arises. Suddenly, reverse-engineering endeavors that something so many people rely on can be made subjected to the wrath of software patents (and thus royalties). Ironically enough, Europe itself does not honor software patents, yet it seems to have blindly accepted what Microsoft insists on. There is a great danger here -- the danger of letting standards be neglected and crucial consensus be decentralized.
Let us look at the importance of standards and then return to the issue at hand. This issue is unlikely to go away unless the European Commission changes its mind and its decision, thereby acknowledging its misunderstandings.
Why Are Standards Important?
In a world where diverse mixtures of technologies exist, products need to communicate. They need to interact with one another in order to handle complex tasks and for users to achieve their goals. The consensus has usually been that in order for products to communicate, industry leaders and field experts should convene and agree on a set of rules. They should agree on a single uniform method (or a set thereof) that will enable products to cooperate with one another. This is what standards are all about.
Companies have plenty of reasons to like standards. Universal standards make development much easier and they facilitate integration with other technologies. By adhering to standards, communication with other products can be assured. Rather than test and design 'bridges' (or 'translators', or lossy 'converters') for each pair or products, design can be matched to a written, publicly available and static standard. It makes life easier for both software development companies and companies that consume technology, i.e. those that actually use the products and whose requirements matter the most.