Subject: Re: standards & FS
From: (Frank Hecker)
Date: Thu, 27 May 1999 18:54:19 -0400

Stephen Walli wrote:
> Frank Hecker's statements about Mozilla were also appreciated.  There are
> multiple implementations of browers and a huge community of users developing
> content to be displayed.  Standards are essential here, and the HTML wars
> and browser share battles are painful to watch.  But it's unclear that the
> fact that Mozilla is published under the MPL is actually relevant to the
> discussion.

I'm not up to doing detailed comments on your post; however I did want
to address a little more what I meant in my own comments on this
particular issue, as it's clear that I haven't explained my points well
enough.  In particular, I think we need to look more closely at why
"standards are essential here" and for whom the "HTML wars" are actually
painful.  (Note that, as usual, these are my personal opinions and not
necessarily my employers'.)
Historically the cost of not having standards compliance in browsers has
been primarily borne by the creators of web content, not by the browser
vendors or by the end users; the cost is in the form of the extra work
required to create content readable by at least the two major browsers. 
Web content creators were motivated to do this extra work because they
were competing against other creators targetting the same user base; any
web site that restricted itself to providing content for only one
browser type would in effect be conceding a large part of its potential
audience to competitors.

The two major browser vendors were not motivated to change things,
because each had a major fraction of the market and could presumably
hope that they could obtain a dominant share, in which case they could
in effect control and define what the "standard" was in practice. (As,
for example, Microsoft's dominance in word processing software has
allowed them to establish the MS Word document format as a
tightly-controlled proprietary de facto standard for office documents.)

End users of browsers didn't bear much cost from browser noncompliance
to standards, because they could (for the most part) keep using the
browser they'd been using, secure in the knowledge that (for the most
part) web site developers would provide them with content that would
display properly in that browser.  (Again, compare and contrast this
with the situation with MS Word: here the dominance of Word allows
creators of office documents to in many cases ignore the small portion
of their audience not running MS Word; those users then bear the cost of
noncompliance in the form of paying for a copy of MS Word, not reading
the documents at all, or trying to find alternative ways to read them --
alternative which in practice are likely to be inferior, given
Microsoft's control of the MS Word standard.)

Assuming that neither Microsoft or Netscape achieved true browser market
dominance (e.g., 90 per cent market share or greater), then all else
being equal I can't see why the situation above couldn't have continued
indefinitely.  What changed the situation in my opinion was not simply
that Mozilla source code was released, but rather that Netscape
implicitly and explicitly sought to recruit "outside" people to become
"co-contributors" to Mozilla.  At that point the problems of those
potential contributors in effect became problems of Netscape as well,
and given that noncompliance was a major pain in the rear for those
people (many of whom were web site creators) Netscape was consequently
more motivated to pay attention to standards compliance than it
otherwise might have been.

So to make this point more general (and get back on-topic re FSBs), I
think the relationship between libre software and standards in practice
doesn't depend solely on the nature of libre software per se, so that,
for example, I wouldn't claim that libre software is by nature
inherently more likely to adhere to formal standards (because it's
developed through a more open process) or (in contrast) that libre
software is by nature less likely to be associated with formal standards
(because the source "stands in" for a more formal specification).  I
believe that the extent to which software products (libre or not) comply
with formal standards is to a large degree a function of market
dynamics; what I do claim is that software being libre, and in
particular the more open development processes possible with libre
software, can sometimes alter those dynamics in ways which increase the
likelihood of compliance with standards.  I think this happened in the
case of Mozilla.

Frank Hecker            Work:     Home: