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Economist: The Fortune of the Commons

May 12, 2003, 19:00 (2 Talkback[s])

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"These network effects also explain why the IT industry in the 1980s already started to move away from completely proprietary technology, the hallmark of the mainframe era. Microsoft, in particular, figured out how to strengthen feedback loops by encouraging other software firms to develop applications for its operating system. This kind of openness made Windows a standard, but users were still locked in.

"Now it seems that, thanks to the internet, the IT industry has entered a positive feedback loop in favour of open standards. Looking back, says Mr Wladawsky-Berger, historians will say that the internet's main contribution was to produce workable open standards, such as TCP/IP, its communication protocol, or HTML, the language in which web pages are written. The internet has also made it much easier to develop standards. Most of the work in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the internet's main standards bodies, is done online. Global open-source communities are able to function because their members can communicate at almost no cost using e-mail or other online tools.

"The success of these groups has also inspired traditional IT companies to create their own open-source-like bodies. Sun, for instance, launched the 'Java Community Process,' or JCP, to develop its Java technology. But because Sun is worried that its standard could splinter, just as that for the Unix operating system did, the firm has installed itself as the JCP's benevolent dictator..."

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