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Who says standards are sacred?

CNET's Michael Kanellos says the latest Java dispute opens the window on a little-discussed truth: Standardization usually favors bigger companies.

"After you."

That is essentially what technology companies hear when asked to submit their original technologies to standards bodies or for open-source licenses.

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You, the inventor, should give away some of your best ideas, because the rest of us would find them quite handy.

Recently, for instance, IBM and open-source luminaries called on Sun Microsystems to publicly release the source code underlying Java. Such a move would "open a whole world of opportunity for new applications and growth of the Java community," Rod Smith, IBM's vice president of emerging technology, wrote in a letter to Sun.

"The choice is between control and ubiquity, and despite your claim that 'open source is our friend,' Sun appears to be choosing control," asserted Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative.

Both IBM and Raymond make very valid points. Java would begin to spread more widely if Sun loosened its control. Linux has gone from being a curiosity to a worldwide phenomenon

The pendulum seems to have swung too far in favor of standardization.
in five years because of open-source licensing.

Sun has resisted the push, asserting that it does not want to see the proliferation of incompatible versions of Java.

But it also has a stronger--and unstated--counterargument. "Have you seen how many cell phones are out there that use Java?" it might go. "Do you realize we get about 25 cents for each one of those? And besides, do you think it was easy or cheap to get this ball rolling? The T-shirts and souvenir squishy balls alone cost us millions of dollars."

While standards and openness can clearly help the industry and consumers, and even rebound to the benefit of the inventors, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in favor of standardization. Any time a technology becomes popular, advocates for royalty-free licenses begin to demand committees and working groups. Inventors and those who would assert patent rights get painted as goons in the way of progress.

Standards, of course, have their place. When railroad tracks were first being laid in Europe in the 19th century, most industrialized nations agreed on a track gauge. Russia didn't. It built wider tracks to prevent a German invasion. Instead, the move prevented the czar's armies from getting to the front in a timely manner in World War I.

Similarly, the technology industry has proved adept at adopting standards as a way to eliminate potential incompatibilities in networking protocols or in the internal dimensions of a PC chassis.

Many of these standards agreements, however, were creatures of convenience, put together when the profit potential was low and the risk from competing technologies high.

Standardization mostly benefits large companies, not small ones.
Intel submitted its Universal Serial Bus technology to standardization as a way to speed up input-output links, and it has since become ubiquitous. Apple Computer tried to charge $1 per port for FireWire but got few takers until the royalties were reduced.

Standards advocates also often paste over another major conflict--namely, that standardization mostly benefits large companies, not small ones. If a piece of software or a chip design gets opened up for public consumption, the winner will be the company that can sell it the cheapest. Those with big factories and development teams win.

That was the strategy behind the standardization of Bluetooth. Cell phone makers and carriers loved the technology, because it enables notebooks to wirelessly connect to the Internet via a cell phone. Inexpensive Bluetooth receivers built on standards would have paved the way for these companies to dominate wireless data traffic.

Had the plan worked, it's hard to imagine that Atheros Communications or other Wi-Fi specialists would have gotten far.

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By the same token, the Wi-Fi companies that emerged in the flush of wireless may flounder, because Wi-Fi itself is a standard that will favor the large.

By contrast, the only asset smaller companies often have is their intellectual property, which standards bodies by their nature press for them to give up. This point was brought out recently in the Federal Trade Commission's decision in favor of memory chip designer Rambus. The company was accused of fraudulently failing to disclose that it was working on a version of high-speed memory while a member of the JEDEC Solid State Technology Association in the 1990s.

In its 348-page decision, the court quoted a March 10, 1997, Mitsubishi memo: "To counter Intel's move toward adopting Rambus, eight companies have been meeting once every two weeks to quickly plan DDR (double data rate) specifications."

There you have it. Rambus may well have behaved in an underhanded way, as its critics contend. But the same goes for the behemoths. They collaborated within a standards organization with one concrete goal: to cut the small guy out.

Naturally, many will disagree with this. But before you send off an angry e-mail, take this simple test: Assume that you have just inherited a patent from the estate of your great-grandfather that would enable you to collect $1 for every phone ever installed on a network. Would you: a) Renounce the claims on the grounds that they could spur growth and opportunity, especially in developing nations; or b) Whoop it up with glee?