Bruce Perens: A Vertical Market Seeks Open Standards

The battle over open standards, waged in arenas like OpenDocument vs. Microsoft Office, is spreading to additional markets.
Posted October 15, 2008

Bruce Perens

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About the Author Bruce Perens is the creator of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of Open Source and the criterion for Open Source software licensing. Perens represented Open Source at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, at the request of the United Nations Development Program.

IT folks mostly fought the Open Standards wars in the 80's and 90's. Back then, their concern was that the various workstation and server systems had 70 percent profit margins, which they locked in through the use of proprietary APIs. It was too expensive to port a customer's software to another brand, and thus the workstation vendors were able to hold on to that customer.

Eventually, the customers rebelled, asking for systems that implemented Open Standards, so that the customer could disregard the brand and treat computers as more of a commodity.

The Open Standards battle is still fought today. Witness OpenDocument vs. Microsoft Office Open XML over the past two years.

History repeats itself in interesting ways. Vertical markets are today grappling with their own need for truly Open Standards, going through all of the pain that the broader IT industry suffered two decades ago. Fortunately, the verticals can learn from the experience of the broader IT industry that has already fought these battles.

So, of all the critical industries crying out for Open Standards, who is campaigning for them in their own industry today? Is it the manufacturers of voting machines, who must establish high standards to safeguard democracy? Or the medical records system vendors?

Nope, it's the makers of casino slot machines.

Surprisingly, a large number of slot machines run Linux and the GNU system, using off-the-shelf PC motherboards and video cards, inside of very specialized cabinets. For example, see WMS Gaming's platform. And like the broader IT market, the gaming industry's desire for Open Standards comes out of economic factors.

Although Las Vegas was once the bastion of casino gaming, today gaming is available in one form or another in most states. So, casinos have to compete much harder for customer loyalty. And unlike the past, less than 50 percent of today's casino income may come from gaming. Their resort hotels, entertainment and restaurants are responsible for the rest.

This has spawned a need for the casino to adopt a “holistic” treatment of the customer, tracking them both on and off the gaming floor, displaying on the slot machine when there's no line at the buffet – because the casino makes nothing while the customer waits on line – and even dispensing the gift of a free dinner or a show if the customer's having a bad day at the slots. The casino already has that customer's money, and giving something away is going to make the casino more money if it keeps the customer loyal.

So slot machines have started to come with networking applications as a standard feature. But like the mainframe manufacturers of the '70's, slot-machine manufacturers developed their own, proprietary, management protocols. Casino operators were left with the choice of using one manufacturer's machines exclusively, or having problems managing them all together.

They need to spend their time innovating new forms of managing the customer interaction, and instead their time is wasted in trying to glue all of their various vendors’ systems together.

Sounds familiar? It's IT's Open Standards wars all over again – and two decades later. There's even a dominant vendor who talks “Open” while engineering continuing lock-in of their customers.

So, WMS Gaming asked me for help, in promoting the idea of truly Open Standards to the casino operators, explaining what the advantages will be for them, and helping the industry come up with new standards. They've created an entertaining web site directed at casino operators, and will have me interact with them this month, and give a talk and a panel at their industry conference next month.

Over the longer term I will continue to promote this issue in their industry and work with all parties to help drive the Open Standards they need.

This definition of truly Open Standards is taken from my short paper Open Standards: Principles and Practice. It was this document that attracted WMS to my practice:

An Open Standard is more than just a specification. The principles behind the standard, and the practice of offering and operating the standard, are what make the standard Open.


1. Availability

Open Standards are available for all to read and implement.

2. Maximize End-User Choice

Open Standards create a fair, competitive market for implementations of the standard. They do not lock the customer in to a particular vendor or group.

3. No Royalty

Open Standards are free for all to implement, with no royalty or fee. Certification of compliance by the standards organization may involve a fee.

4. No Discrimination

Open Standards and the organizations that administer them do not favor one implementor over another for any reason other than the technical standards compliance of a vendor's implementation. Certification organizations must provide a path for low and zero-cost implementations to be validated, but may also provide enhanced certification services.

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