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A Brief History of Open Standards

In the 1980s, computing technology started to become stratified, with much more distinct horizontal structures. With vendors' proprietary architectures, it was extremely difficult to interface data and communications between computer systems. But this situation led in turn to greater degrees of modularization, interoperability, and the development of a marketplace for peripherals. The net effect was an increase in the rate of innovation, greater value for customers, and some loss of account control by hardware vendors. The software side of the equation also saw horizontal stratification. Operating systems started to become much more generic and independent of hardware platforms. The middleware layer evolved, allowing for greater cost-effectiveness and greater innovation at the client layer as application vendors were freed from having to worry about the inner workings of the hardware technology.

These developments started to force standardization, which became vital in the effort to exploit networking technology and the growing use of the Internet. The potential for computers to communicate with each other and for great stores of information to be virtualized was predicated on simple and standardized communications.

While in the past it may have been possible for a business to be an IBM, HP, or Sun shop, it eventually become impossible for any one company to control the interfaces that ran the world's networks. During the 1990s, a number of major companies made strategic decisions to embrace this evolution toward open standards. These decisions were based on simple pragmatism: If we're going to live forever more in a networked world, then that networked world must run on open standards. This development has been good news for customers of IT and the IT industry in general. The skill and resources of these industry players have been crucial in the development of robust, functional, and highly practical interfaces that are critical enablers of e-business for today.

The challenge of "openness" is still being waged. For the most part, businesses are beginning to embrace open standards as a means of ensuring degrees of flexibility and vendor independence. Many vendors have also embraced open standards, often because their role in the ecosystem as a provider of horizontal infrastructure or networking capability necessitates it. It's also the desire of such businesses to participate in markets dominated by other players who use their market position to promote their proprietary interfaces. Some vendors have been successful in exploiting what economists call the network effect—the tendency toward adoption of a common platform owing to the intersecting interests and interdependencies of ecosystem participants, including consumers. In turn, these companies have been able to exert control over programming interfaces and document formats to protect their market positions.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020