Open and Shut

Peeping Tom’s Doors, LLC

It’s not just what you do to a door.

Nor is it only a type of case.

And I’m not thinking of following it with the word up, either.

Honestly, I should have probably titled this post “Open and Closed,” but isn’t it way more intriguing since I went with shut.

I’m talking about standards.

I think it’s been over two years since I last thought about this, and I think that’s long enough. After that long it’s okay if I repeat myself.

Those Olsen twins are always repeating themselves.

The Joy of Open

As I said back then: In the end, the best standards, protocols, and Beard Papa’s are the open ones.

Nobody likes to design a product based around a standard that some other company has control over. And nobody likes to buy a product that doesn’t interoperate with the different product all their idiot friends bought. Or a product that doesn’t even work with other products their idiot self bought. Like Guitar Hero controllers.

Eventually, natural market pressures force the most ubiquitous standard to win out, and all the other ones dry up and wither away, like dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Of course, the most ubiquitous standard is not always the most open standard. Like in the case of Word Docs, PDF, Flash, Gif, MP3.. and I bet even another one I’m forgetting!

The way these formats got to be the de facto standard without being truly open is simple:

They started with the best implementation.

A standard is zilcho without an implementation. You might have the most GPLed, flexible, extensible, well-documented, feature-complete standard on the face of the universe, and if your standard is a beee-yotch to implement (or has a stupid Ogg-something name) it will be born still.

Of course, to become de facto, a non-open standard needs to be open enough. As in, even though some evil corporation “owns” the standard, they allow anybody to use it for free, and for any purpose, without permission… and probably also give away some good tools that actually implement their “standard.”

Note it's a png.

The Case for Shut

The number one thing a new open standard needs is users. There’s that old chicken and the egg thing again.. nobody wants to go to the trouble of using a standard until it’s been proved good, and you can’t prove a standard is good until people are actually using it.

Generally, the way to beat any chicken and egg problem is by throwing a lot of money at it. Skype had a big C&E problem, PayPal had a huge C&E problem, and eBay had the gigantorous C&E problem of all time! (Hmm, all three are now owned by eBay. Weird.) It just takes a company willing to burn through cash sometimes to beat a chicken and an egg. And, as they’re taking all the risk to develop this new platform, they want the reward… which is easier to keep to themselves by keeping their platform shut.

Well, that settles it!

Not to mention, it’s a lot easier to make a hidden system than a public one. You don’t have to worry about publishing an API, or even documentation, or having months of tedious peer-review everytime you realize something needs to change. You can control the entire environment the system is running on, you can make sneaky like optimizing hacks that just wouldn’t work in the general case, and sometimes you can even add an awesome new feature in a single bound.

I remember wayyyyyyyy back in 1998, I was telling Sage there needs to be a way to email money to people. I was thinking it should be some sort of open standard tied to bank accounts, and some sort of encrypted file that was somehow tied to the government, and you could just attach a “cash file” to an email and it’d automatically transfer the money out of your bank account and into theirs. Or something. The details were a little tricky, but I just thought, “You should be able to email money.”

Of course, less than a year later, PayPal (and X.com) came around and just CHEATED. They just made their own centralized system and had everybody sign up with them! And it worked, and was simple, and nobody cared that they had to sign up for PayPal to do it instead of running their own “encrypted cash server” at their own domain like I was sort of envisioning.

Gah, if I’d have only thought of that kludgey hack, I’d be building rockets and video sharing sites, and DreamHost would have never grown bigger than a few dozen hentai sites.

This could have been much MUCH worse.

Just Do It

I guess the moral of the story is, if you’ve got some great new idea, just do it yourself. Any way you can. Even if it is the kind of thing that needs “network effects” and really lends itself to an open protocol or standard, don’t worry about that!

The first thing you need to do is make it work, and make it popular. Then the rest of the Internerd community will take notice and start working on their open standard implementation. But until you prove it’s something worth working on, nobody will.

And eventually, that open protocol will take over, and get included for free in everybody’s DreamHost account… emphasis on eventually.

In the meantime, you’ve probably been bought out for enough money to start working on that space harem I dreamt about last night.

Are those Tribbles I see?

And I’m off to continue rocking the Guitar Hero III demo!

About the author

Josh Jones