As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, open standards were largely responsible for the PC revolution and the development of the Internet. Open standards are important because they specify formats or protocols which are published and discussed, tested, improved, agreed to, and used by a large user base (hardware or software companies and their customers, for example). Closed standards, such as many of those used by Microsoft (called "trade secrets"), make it difficult for others to interact properly with those systems. Open vs. closed standards have different impacts on developing future technologies, but also in economic, political, and cultural realms.
The term "open standards" does not mean free. "Open" refers to the information being available. Most people using the Internet benefit by several long-used open standards: RS232 ports in the back of many modems, TCP/IP protocols which carry traffic around the net, and more. What would happen without standards, e.g., if your computer needed a particular kind of modem, or your network would only carry certain kinds of material?
Here, we use the term "Open Network" to refer to a meta-network of telephone, cable, fiber optic, and other networking lines and facilities. The Internet is such a meta-network. When you send or receive messages, web pages, and the like, it doesn't matter which kind of network your message travels on to reach you. In fact, it probably travels over more than one kind of network along its path.
Our guidelines again provide some perspective on this environment.
How hard is it to keep working? Within limits, you can choose the kind of computer and operating system you want. Each of these work with established standards to connect to the net and convey your bits of information. The net itself is largely a collection of open protocols that work together to connect its users. No one is in charge, no one "owns" the network, though many companies own pieces and parts (such as the copper telephone lines, or the fiber optic lines, or the servers of any .com company, etc.) The methods and machinations of the network were created in such a way that many peoplein fact anyone interested and technically knowledgeable enoughcan add to the development and conversation. Several technical societies and non-profit "working groups" coordinate many of the conversations. This works as long as no one company in an extraordinary position of power co-opts the process.
How trustworthy is a home or business computer or network? How will users know if their files, operating system or private networks have been shared or compromised? Can malicious hackers get access to a user's files? In an open network, user manageability, security, and encryption, along with responsible computing practices (backing up files, adjusting security preferences in software and hardware) are more important. Many people are working on developing various tools for use with, and protocols for the net. The private sector (business) has a rolebut does not have an absolute rightto control the network and all devices and information connected to it.
How easy is the consumer's computing environment to extend? Now, you can buy one of many internal or external devices and plug them into your computer. Choice, competition in the marketplace, gives computer users more and diverse goods at better prices. As mentioned earlier, what if you only had the choice of one scanner or one modem? (Do you think it would have a low price?) Similarly, the Internet is largely open to all new comers. Striking a balance between open, enabling technologies and business-oriented, minimally protective environments is key. We don't need, and should not usually have, any particular kind of person, business, operating system, or representative to intermediate, monitor, or control our connection or use of the net.
How well can it handle failures? Dependence on absolute perfection is unnecessary if, for example, slightly less speed gives us a more robust network. Open systems tend to route around problems. The network has many operating systems, interfaces, and layers. Most routing problems are temporary. A virus or malicious code has a harder time propagating and causing harm in a diverse environment. The network has many layers of functionality; harm generally travels on only one at a time.
How hard is it to subvert? Part of the answer is choice. Users have many ways to secure their computers and information. Here, education is key: how widespread is the affected platform? (Bigger targets are more likely targets.) Is the behavior of the users likely to spread the problem? (Such as clicking on an attachment in email.) What do we need to know to protect ourselves? (Such as virus protection, backing up our data, etc.) The other part of the answer is encryption. Many people say they don't have anything to hide, but encryption is more about social and technical responsibility than hiding secrets. Just as we close doors in our house for certain activities, we must have the capability to close doors to others that may abuse or corrupt our resources.
Resistance to legal or political intervention
How hard is it to shut down, or worse, to interfere with the network? When legislation is passed (for good or, as we've seen proposed lately, for shortsighted or one-sided gain), or when the entirety of the network decides to take action, it becomes theoretically possible. Even then, foreign countries, dissidents, and other rogue elements may keep the channels openbut the messages may not be the same as the original author intended. In the same way that governments handle other mechanisms of commerce (roads, airways, waterways), they have responsibilities and duties to the net. But governments, like businesses, malicious or extremist independents, are notand should not bein absolute control.
How big can it grow? As problems are discovered, a vast global network of companies and users can lend their expertise and assistance. Currently, the network's growth is hampered by provider access limitations, DNS and addressing/routing squabbles, and other artificial barriers. If we can move past these, we'll see what "global" really means.
Since we only have parts of an open network now, we can just begin to see what's possible. What kind of activities and developments are likely to be facilitated by a fully-open network? Let's speculate:
The wild growth of the Internet and World-Wide Web over the last 10+ years was all about public involvement: getting and exchanging information quickly and easily. Email is very popular, as is chat and "surfing" the web. In fact, email, chat, web surfing, and many more tools of the Internet were created for a stupid network: it doesn't matter whether you're using a telephone line, ethernet, fiber, wireless, or another technology to send and receive your messages. Furthermore, public interest supports independent media productions, the media-on-demand market is solid, and new ways of communicating with each other are encouraged and tested by people everywhere.
A wide variety of electronics are able to communicate with each other, making networks customizable to meet the needs of any given interest, ability, person, device, house, or community. Different kinds of "networks" can connect and work together, giving new life to grass-roots and community-based efforts through mobile, wireless, landline (telephone line), and other interfaces. New equipment and software developments are integrated smoothly and creatively. Collaboration and educational efforts spring up and are supported by communities with similar capabilities and/or interests.
The network infrastructure is abundant, varied, and connectable. The network itself does not impose restrictions. It is "dumb", or "stupid," in that it doesn't impose conditions on or control the data that it carries. A stupid network is the best thing to encourage innovative, intelligent and flexible devicesthe best thing to support collaboration and self-controlled communities.
An open, or stupid, network has several advantages over our existing networks:
which give users
"One thing about the Stupid Network is clear: the physical elements that comprise the network would be neither expensive nor scarce. There would be little profit margin in shipping dumb bits." A stupid network reduces its own value: "The best network is the hardest one to make money running."
Currently, we have several affronts to this future. Microsoft is but one representative. Hollywood, legacy Bell networks, and a legislative deference to lobbying dollars all confound the possibility of a truly open network.
For example, the network itself has substantial and important non-infringing uses. However, personal attitudes and behaviors continue to be a concern for large media companies who now wish to embed controls in all of our computers, recorders, players, and other technology.
Considering a Microsoft-like network as compared with an open network:
"A paradox arises from the meaning of "best." If "best" meant, "generate the most cash for the network owner," there would be no paradox. But if we accepted this meaning of best, we'd have to be content with the tightly-controlled, relatively thin stream of bits that the telephone companies currently grant us. Stop and think about this. How valuable is a network (web, email, etc) that users can't make full and creative use of?"
Communications networks (telecommunications and cable companies, public utility communications networks, and more) offer a value greater than return on investment: in the form of connectivity and the services it enables. "The best network delivers bits in the largest volumes at the fastest speeds. In addition, the best network is the most open to new communications services; it closes off the fewest futures and elicits the most innovation."
One of our most significant problems is that some existing companies and their respective regulatory environment don't have room for this kind of thinking. But ready or not, networking alternatives are coming: from cities laying municipal fiber networks to individuals and small groups implementing local neighborhood wireless networks, and soon technologies like ultra-wide band wireless and more.
Choose networks that allow you to choose your own tools.
We can't possibly imagine all of the great things we can do if our network remains an unconstrained resource. Exciting ways of connecting, interacting, and effectively and conveniently empowering ourselves are yet to be discovered. Open networks encourage discovery and development. The Microsoft .NET network does not.
Back: Part 1: The Microsoft Network | Next: Footnotes