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History Repeating Itself: The Value of Standard Data

Even security features, however, come down to a popularity vote. It's Alison's other point—standards—that comes closest to the heart of the new browser war. The new war isn't about popularity, digital accessorizing, or even consumers. It isn't directly about standards either—most of the W3C's web standards are now well settled and fine-tuned to the smallest degree. The new war is about the data that makes up the bytes of text in all those HTML document on the web.

Once before, we had a big fight about data. That was in the early days of relational databases. When Oracle was releasing version 2.0 of their flagship product (there never was a version 1.0), few could imagine a practical use for a relational database management system (RDBMS). Compared to the then-existing network and hierarchical databases, the performance of SQL engines was abysmal. Like today's web-browser popularity arguments, all you has to do was say "performance" and that was apparently the end of the argument for SQL.

Of course, SQL not only survived and thrived, it eventually dominated. Relational data is highly standardized, highly portable, highly interoperable, highly queryable, and even human-readable sometimes. Early RDBMSs were slow, but the idea of manageably open data propelled the technology forward anyway, until the performance problems faded away. The systematic benefits of manageable data drove RDBMSs and SQL into the spotlight. SQL was never about performance. It was about open, manageable data. Performance issues were nothing more than a hall of mirrors, or a teething problem.

At the time, competition between RDBMS vendors was fierce, even after Oracle gained the edge. The emergence of the SQL92 standard represented a crisis for all vendors. If SQL92 was widely applied, RDBMS servers would be reduced to a marginally profitable commodity. The database vendors knew that open data was a customer issue, and to make money they had to show that they were dedicated to addressing the issue. There followed an extensive period of rhetoric about striving for standards compliance. In reality, though, no vendor wanted standards compliance. For a long time, there was a "go slow" on actual standards implementation from all vendors.

Another significant example was portability of CASE tools metadata. By the time the hashed-out CASE standards were supported by implementations, no one really cared. It no longer mattered whether your data could be moved from one CASE repository to another.

In summary, the strategic value of standard data support in the world of SQL and RDBMSs was blocked by the vendors. This was done despite both public and customer interest in standard data.

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