Chris' Rant- by Chris Wenham

Blinded By Protocol

The workday begins, you power up your computer, you dial into your Internet provider and your mail, browser and FTP client cannot resolve any addresses. Calling your ISP you find out that they switched to a new nameserver protocol that uses a feature added to Windows a year earlier. To save money the ISP shut down their old and now obsolete nameserver, but if you like they can mail you a floppy with the patch "for your Windows PC." The consortium that developed the new nameserver system, headed by Microsoft, did not choose to make the protocol an open standard nor make a fix for OS/2. With that kind of maddening panic and exasperation that comes only when you look into the future and see yourself facing months of convincing a cash strapped ISP that their half dozen OS/2 customers need the old nameserver, you instead hang up the phone and face months of finding a new provider who isn't also shifting to the new scheme.

You notice one day that you're starting to get more and more mail from customers and associates that comes in an attachment which you cannot read. The attachment is a file that uses a format similar to Word's, now embodied as part of Outlook Express that Microsoft began bundling with Windows. You send mail to these people asking them to please switch back to regular ASCII, or to HTML if formatting is important, but they say the default setting cannot be changed and it's a chore to go to the dialog box nested three menu levels deep, just to change the formatting for each e-mail sent.

Your favorite web site switches to a dialect of Dynamic HTML supported only by Internet Explorer. Like with the introduction of frames, most sites don't offer alternative content, but merely an apology and a link to download the browser you cannot run.

ZIP becomes steadily displaced by a new compression scheme from a company that only makes a Windows version and is unwilling to make its superefficient proprietary algorithms public.

Where do these nightmares come from? A cruel imagination? Most actually come from real life news stories, or rather what happens when you read between their lines. Proprietary standards and protocols are intoxicating to the companies that develop them, as the profit potential of being the only vendor for a hot standard can be huge. The most visible precedent for the proprietary route is, of course, the Windows API -- a standard that has earned its maker a place as one of the most staggeringly rich and powerful companies in the world. Is it any surprise then that here, in the PC industry, worshippers of Microsoft's success are all too ready to copy its business techniques letter for letter?

The PC industry is also famous for not tolerating multiple standards very well. Most web browsers still only support a pathetic sampling of image formats (.GIF, .JPG, and a tiny drop of .PNG support here and there); Office suites still inter operate poorly with programs from other vendors (try using 1-2-3 with Clearlook, Mesa 2 with StarWriter and so on); Modem wars; Audio and video streaming; video cards; sound cards; USB vs. Firewire; so on and so on. The fact is, it's cheaper to use only one standard for encoding or transmitting information. The program, computer or service which supports the larger number of standards also has the higher price, and the consumer PC marketplace is not known for fat profit margins.

So your ISP will more likely want to minimize the number of redundant services it offers and software makers will want to keep their money making secrets close to heart as well as doing everything in their power to increase the number of people using them.

What it spells is a death of slow, creeping blindness to any platform which cannot keep up with the progress of these standards and protocols and schemes. Looking at fiascoes like QuickTime, Netscape Communicator and DVD it seems that OS/2 is definitely not the one first to bat with support for important new standards, which is what I'd call a tragedy waiting to happen.

The only notable exception to this reputation is Java, for which OS/2 support is exemplary. This may be its saving grace, but that's the topic for another column.

But to make sure we don't get blinded by protocol and loose our means of using our computers productively with the outside world, I suggest that the OS/2 community needs to do two things:

First, use good old fashioned political means to make sure the proprietary standards loose out to open ones. This means letter writing, grassroots efforts, word of mouth, and the most powerful of all: voting with your wallet.

And second, provide encouragement (financial or otherwise) to the large pool of technical talent we have, so that someone out there is ready and willing to create the support for those open standards once won. Take a look at the OS/2 port of the Roadrunner cable modem login client, Practice Corp's QuickMotion and J Street Mailer as examples of both free and commercial software that already tackle the problems of open and semi-open standards (Roadrunner's Kerberos authentication, QuickTime video, LDAP etc.)

If you think the threat of proprietary standards and protocols blocking OS/2 users out of the world is or is not real, or think you know of other ways to deal with the problem, your thoughts are welcomed and encouraged in our Hypernews Forum.

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Chris Wenham is the Senior Editor of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Assistant Editor which means his parking spot will now be wide enough to keep his bicycle and a trailer.


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