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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
The Internet works because it has standards. I'm not talking about the kinds of "standards" which measure exclusivity, such as the possession of a Y chromosome as the basis for membership in the Augusta National Golf Club. Instead, I am talking about standards which promote inclusive behavior. The whole idea of the Internet, from its start, is that there is a standard and openly documented way to communicate. If everyone knows that standard, then anyone can develop software to utilize it. Everybody is included. All you need to expend is your time and effort.
The open standards model has been quite successful. Economics has limited the types of computer hardware available (a computer is still not something that most people can whip up from spare parts in their basement), but the simple agreement on standards has opened up worldwide communication to a point that's never been seen before. An e-mail to Belgium is not any more difficult than an e-mail to Boston. SPAM from Romania is as common as SPAM from Redmond.
A standards battle ground
One area which has always seemed to be a standards battle ground, however, is the World Wide Web. The driving concept behind the development of the Web was the possibility of providing content independent of presentation. In other words, a publisher was responsible for providing the information, but the recipient (Web Client) was responsible for the presentation. Such a scheme allows content to be provided to a large variety of computers which, through their software, can determine how or if to display that content.
Over the course of development of the Web, however, there came an increasing desire on the part of publishers to control the presentation as well as the content. Some of this was necessitated by the development of Internet-based commerce and some by the desire to make web pages appear as if they are locally run applications. The extreme result of such efforts to exert control lead to messages on web pages such as, "This page best viewed with <your browser name here>." Such a message is totally counter to the founding concept of the World Wide Web, to the point that some pages now contain the (somewhat sarcastic, I think) message, "This page best viewed with any browser."
What we've seen in the web world is only the tip of the standards battle iceberg. Competing standards for online identity, commercial interaction, and data interchange are being developed right now. Microsoft is doing so through it's ".NET" product and Sun is driving the J2EE set of standards (see this O'Reilly.com article: http://java.oreilly.com/news/farley_0800.html). On the other hand, there are efforts for open standards in areas such as online identity as seen in the openSAML project (http://middleware.internet2.edu/opensaml/).
Will you have a choice?
Capitalism has driven the development of an industrialized society, but is it the right model for the development of Internet technology? Capitalism is inherently amoral, having as its goal the development and preservation of capital. Concepts such as the development and preservation of human rights and freedom of information are valued only to the extent that they affect the generation of profit. I'm sure that many corporations sincerely have the public interest as a primary concern, but it only takes a few companies such as Enron and WorldCom to understand that companies actions can easily have a devastating effect on their investors, their employees, and even on the general public.
Who will control the ongoing development of the Internet?
The bigger question is who will control the ongoing development of the Internet? There's no question that the Internet is here to stay and that it will have a increasingly greater affect on how we live our lives. Will the ongoing model be based upon inclusion or exclusion? Will development be open and available to all or proprietary and exclusive to those who have capital to invest?
So who do you trust? Are you suspicious of the open source community of scholars, students, business people and plain folks whose motivation is to develop some software which is useful to them and others? Are you content to wander with the herd of convenience without the inclination to worry about your own interests? What are your standards?
The cartoon above is from "Today's Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen", posted with special permission. For many more cartoons, please visit www.glasbergen.com.