Standards, and open-source v. closed-source

Recently, some people have made known to me their objection to the involvement of developers of propriety software, such as Microsoft, in the development and evolution of web standards. They see the actions of such companies as inherently detrimental to the promotion of open standards, and would rather see such development solely led by open-source communities.

There are two models of software development identified here – the proprietary model, where developers write code as intellectual property (IP) and license that IP to their customers, and the open-source one, where the code is kept in the public domain and contributed to by many people, and is freely available. Many more traditional companies have adopted the former model, while many newer entities have determined that open source is a better path for them. However, I do not see how this distinction limits the ability for either group to create and promote standards.

We must keep in mind that standards, especially web standards, change greatly over time, and that these standards are influenced by many sources. Every product, every implementation contributes something to the greater development of the web in general, and give new opportunities and ideas to help improve the experience of developers. Microsoft’s innerHTML property was never part of JavaScript when they introduced it, but it was a great idea, and so it was adopted. Netscape’s “layers” concept wasn’t, and so was not adopted; however, the CSS specification now has the concepts of z-indexes and absolute positioning.

Web standards come from everywhere; they are not the property of open-source groups, and some of our greatest innovations (visual HTML rendering?) have come from entities dealing in proprietary software. To hate is wrong, and to try to view a certain group of our software ecosystem as “bad” and not worthy of inclusion is detrimental to the system as a whole. Existing standards are great, but without innovation become stagnated – and all companies, open-source software or not, have something to contribute. Web standards, like all, are debated, and it is good that alternatives are produced – just look at the development of the Ethernet standard. These experiences enrich the final result, and without them we run the risk of adopting procedures that are not optimal, or desirable.

And when new standards are recommended, I think it is great that all software products, even proprietary ones, adopt these standards – and I’m sure you would agree that it would be worse if MS didn’t implement the HTML spec in their browsers. Just like any company (even an open-source one), they have to make money, and I’m not sure why people begrudge them for moving with the times.

Really, we cannot be afraid of proprietary products – they are software that do something, just like any other, and freedom and other ideals aside it is simply the way a company has decided to make money. To split the world down the proprietary / open-source divide will simply serve
to alienate many good ideas, foster a close-minded approach, and ultimately hurt the standards system itself.