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The Hague Declaration

On Wednesday 21st May we signed the Hague Declaration. We signed four copies. One went to the Royal Dutch Archives, one will remain with Digistan, and we'll sell two on eBay to raise funds for our work.

By a striking coincidence, Microsoft announced just after the Hague Declaration was signed that future versions of Office will support ODF and PDF natively. This is great news and shows that when public demand for free and open standards is well focussed and expressed, businesses listen.

While most people who have learned about Digistan seem enthusiastic about the idea of an organization dedicated to defending and promoting free and open standards (some of you asked, "why is this even needed", a very good question), some commentators see Digistan as part of a dark conspiracy.

The Hague workshop was pretty interesting. There was a lot of discussion about how we were going to organize Digistan. Mainly we will use the workgroup model to put 'boxes' around the different projects we do - be they regional or topical. Some workgroups will be fully public, some fully private, most will have a mix of private and public. My view is that Digistan will be attacked by people who don't like what we are doing, don't want us to succeed. Therefore some discussions need to be private, and there will be levels.

For example, for the Domino project - one that many people at the Hague workshop found very interesting - we'll have two mailing lists, one public and one closed. This is just the way it has to go - some of the discussion will be too easy to sabotage if it's public. People will be invited to the private list based on merit and the work they've already done.

At the Hague there were two areas we did not have general agreement on:

  • First, some people did not like the term "free and open standards" and asked why we did not stick to "open standards".
  • Second, some people asked us why we were thinking of becoming "yet one more standards body" like IETF and W3C.

The answers to these questions are complex and won't be obvious for some time. I have my own opinions, but mostly I expect the diverse discussions we already enjoy in Digistan to produce better answers than anyone could do individually.

But since this is my blog, here are my personal answers.

"Free and open standards" reminds us that the strongest competitor to industrial-age software development is free and open software, and that a perfectly competitive software market is one where free and open software faces no barriers. It's perhaps a temporary phase, but many of the roadblock that we see thrown up in the software market are aimed at preventing competition from free and open source software teams.

The word "free" is also very important. As I wrote in the Rationale,

The term "open" itself has many degrees of meaning from a high wall with a crack in the door to a field with no walls at all. We wish to secure the terminology by adding the word "free", in both its meanings:

  • Freedom to use, improve upon, trust, and extend a standard over time.
  • Freedom from all costs and tariffs associated with the above freedoms.

The ambition of freedom in this case is the removal of barriers, of friction, and of costs. It is also the ambition of remaining free over time, especially as the value of the market based on the standard increases.

When a wise engineer builds a bridge, he makes it much stronger than it needs to be at first sight. Similarly, using "free and open" rather than "open" gives us reinforcement against the inevitable attempts to change "open as a field" to mean "open as a crack in the door".

The downside is that we step back from actively defending the statutory term "open standard" which is used, for example, in laws and government contract. Again, this seems OK. It is probably less work to get "free and open standard" accepted as statutory language.

Now the second point of contention. Does Digistan think it can compete with venerable institutions like the IETF?

Well, of course not. However the IETF is focussed on a narrow field - Internet standards - and consists of a relatively small expert community. This means that new proposals are not widely discussed with potential users, and when they finally become numbered RFCs or formal IETF standards, the vast majority of developers who could be using the new format are unaware of the specification.

There is a great benefit to small software developers to standardize their formats and languages. For example, there are many FOSS graphics programs. Each has its own format. They can interoperate but there is no network effect as we have seen for other formats (JPEG, ODF, etc.) Why have the developers of GIMP and Krita not sat down and developed a common format?

Well, there are good answers to this - developers focus on code, not standards. And making a new standard seems horribly complex. Where to start?

So this is where I see Digistan as entering the picture. Perhaps initially for file formats that are widely used but not formally defined in any way. By providing a common legal framework, technical skills, and by working with a wide network of developers, Digistan can help small standards emerge and become world-class specifications who's network effects eventually become more attractive to users than sheer functionality.

One of the first set of formats we'd like to try to raise to the level of a standard are the text formats used for wikis. The exploding importance of wikis means these little languages are becoming more and more important., for example, is built as wikis. I expect the Wikiglot project to be controversial, actually I'm counting on it because what will, in the end, make Digistan work is the support of people who care about the formats and languages they use.