Protocols, Not Laws

Posted to HotWired 6 Jan 98

Garfinkel argues that companies should be forced to reveal file formats, thus ensuring that data written with one program can be read by other programs.

I have to agree with the previous posters: while Garfinkel identifies a genuine problem, his proposed solution is unreasonable. Having Congress enact a law raises many more issues than it solves.

My own feeling is that issues like this are of such a nature as to be outside the domain of law. Not because I have any innate predisposition against legislation - I don't - but because widespread adherence in such matters requires the willing participation of those involved.

This is especially the case because the computer industry is not a domestic industry, which falls completely under the domain of Congress, but rather is a global industry, subject to a myriad of legislative jurisdictions. Even supposing all nations and companies complied, coordination and administration would prove to be an impossible (and needless) task.

Far better is the approach already widely adopted on the internet: protocol based standards. With protocols, there is no requirement that you comply, however, if you want to play well with others, it is in your best interest to comply.

Widespread, publicly available protocols such as TCP/IP and HTML are what have enabled the internet to become a global medium and have enabled a wide number of players to meaningfully participate. Were the standards of the internet dictated by only one corporation, then even with licensing its growth would be nothing compared to what open protocols have enabled.

As we move toward next-generation HTML, too, I think that we will see the development of common file formats as desired by Garfinkel. The problem with HTML is that it is not at present nearly as robust as, say, MS-Word format or even that of Quark XPress. This will change as HTML shifts from being a structural language into something more like a design language.

As HTML and its successors become more ubiquitous, software manufacturers - even Microsoft - will be forced to comply. Indeed, the major addition to Office 97 was the implementation of (bad) HTML scripting. As this capacity improves along with HTML, people will routinely save documents in HTML rather than in native .doc format.

Not that this will be an easy or inevitable transition. We are still seeing browser-specific features released by both Microsoft and Netscape. However, the fact that HTML is in the end a flat-ascii format works against either of the two companies being able to monopolize the language.

In any event, whether it is HTML, some successor language, or a completely new protocol-based system, the problems raised by Garfinkel are best addressed by willing cooperation rather than legislation.

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