Usability for Nerds/Open standards

All technical products that have connections with other products need a standardized interface. For example:

  • A water faucet must fit into a standardized threading or fitting.
  • A television needs standard plugs, standardized signal levels and standardized data formats.
  • A text processor needs to store text files in a standardized format which can be read by other text processors.
  • A printer needs standardized plugs, standard paper sizes, standardized commands and text encoding, and preferably a standardized ink or toner cartridge.
  • Anything connected to a computer network needs standardized plugs and protocols.
  • Any piece of software needs to fit a standardized operating system.

There are different kinds of standards and different levels of standardization:

Secret factory standard. The product is intended to be compatible only with other products from the same company. Competing companies need to hack or reverse-engineer these products in order to make something compatible. An example is the old format for Microsoft Word documents.

Proprietary standard. The standard is owned by a company and protected by patents or copyright restrictions. Other companies must pay a license fee for making compatible products. Example: the Postscript printer file format.

De facto standard. A de facto standard develops when various companies tend to make their products compatible with existing products from other companies. There is no official agreement, but neither is there any attempt to protect the schemes by secrets, patents or copyrights. Example: Hewlett-Packard Printer Control Language for laser printers.

Official standard. The standard is endorsed and maintained by an official organization. All technical details are specified exactly and published. Example: the HTTP protocol and the HTML language for the World Wide Web.

Open source. A software product is developed by volunteers and the software as well as the complete source code is made public without severe copyright restrictions. Anybody can improve or modify the product and anybody can make compatible products. Example: The Linux operating system.

Users need compatibility. Secret and proprietary standards are shunned by consumers because it makes them dependent on only one or a few producers, and they risk that development and maintenance of the products be discontinued.

An advantage of the open source principle is that errors and problems can always be fixed, while producers of proprietary software sometimes cover up their bugs or tell the users to just update to the next version (which has other bugs). The disadvantage of open source is that there is no economic incentive to improve the product and its usability.

Standardization · Convincing decision makers