Stick-up — Part II

Philip Jacob asks a question about a recent spec out of Microsoft. In particular what are his rights and responsibilities if he decides to use or implement it.

Let me take a stab at that.

There is a scenario in standardization I call the stick-up. The standard is written. The standard becomes widely adopted. Then an IP-rights holder shows up and announces he is going to be collecting a tax on the entire installed base. The stick-up artist can be anybody from one of the original advocates of the standard thru to complete strangers.

When the stick-up occurs the artist fears the standard community forming common cause and coming after him. Because that community will, by then, have an immovable installed base they will find it easy to agree that a coordinated response is in their best interest. For this reason the stick-up artist will tend to approach and negotiate only with a selected subset of the entire community. Often swearing them to secrecy.

Microsoft consistently reserves the right to be that stick-up artist. This is not entirely insane. Market power may let them get away with it; e.g. setting standards without them is hard and historically they have been able to set standards without reference to any other market participants. Some ethical frameworks hold that they have a fiduciary responsibility to play the game this way. Strategically important for them is that they are near certain candidate for targeting by a some other stick-up artist – there is a kind of mutually assured destruction quality to their approach in these matters. In most firms this section of the strategic policy manual is write once; for quite a few reasons.

Microsoft hasn’t admitted that their standard setting powers are tremendously reduced from a decade ago. The policy they currently use reflects that. It makes them an exceptionally poor partner in standards setting. It does serious damage to the short term chance than any of their proposals will gain any real momentum.

Firms don’t adapt fast unless they are really really scared and they have really really strong leadership. Microsoft has often demonstrated the ability to do that. You don’t survive for long one up from Moore’s law and friends unless you can pull that off! In the absence of fear and leadership, as we see here, firms try to adapt in the usual way, e.g. process improvement or turning up the knob on existing behaviors. The use of one of the creative commons licenses on the text of the spec; as they did in the case Philip is curious about is a bit of both. The existing behavior is PR smoke and mirrors. The process improvement is a bit of dabbling in the techniques of the other side; but it’s just a toe in the water.

Given the abundance of options available for technologists today I can’t quite see why anybody would decide to be an early mover on a standard advocated by Microsoft under terms like this.

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