Market-leader absence in standards (Was: RE: Network World: IMPPlosion)

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From: Lisa Dusseault (
Date: Tue Dec 19 2000 - 11:31:59 PST

It's typical of the market leader in a particular product market to avoid
participating in standards efforts. The rest of the competitors use
standards groups as a way to "collude" and try to force the market leader
onto a different playing field where the runner-ups might do better. AOL is
certainly not alone in acting the way it is, and it's certainly not the
first time AOL has done this. AOL was slow to embrace HTTP because it
commoditizes AOL's services; AOL only embraced HTTP because its competitors
were starting to gain ground on that basis. I was involved in the first
Instant Messaging BOF in the IETF in March 1998. We invited AOL to
participate, but weren't too surprised when they didn't respond. When they
eventually did participate in 1999, due I suppose to pressure, they merely
gave a half-hearted spec of their protocol -- which couldn't effectively be
implemented by competitors, since their protocol depended on their control
of a centralized user database.

It's not just protocol standards where you see the market-leader-absence
effect, but also file formats and programming languages. Imagine MS opening
up its Office file formats. Java was seen as a standard to break Window's
dominance as an application-development and deployment platform.

Fundamentally, it's completely reasonable for the market-leader to act this
way. It's a disservice to the company's shareholders to reduce the value of
a market-leading product by commoditizing important parts of it, until the
competition from the standard becomes serious.

There have been exceptions -- maybe.
 - Microsoft and Lotus _both_ participated in CalSched, the calendaring
protocol standards WG in the IETF. However, CalSched has not gotten very
far in several long years.
 - Microsoft participated in WebDAV very early on, then shipped an early
client-side implementation, in Office 2000 and IE5, as well as a server
implementation in IIS 5.0. Although Office is a market leader, IIS is not,
and IE5 may not have been at the time the work was started, so you could
look MS in this situation either as the market leader or the follower.

So, I've come to believe that it's probably counter-productive to
pressure[1] (or as you say, publicly bully) market leaders to participate in
developing standards. That can randomize the standards group and delay
formation of a standard, or hopelessly water down the standard. Forced
cooperation is rarely effective cooperation. Thus, I've become a proponent
of, yet again, competition. By all means, try to form a standard. By all
means, try to compete with the market leader based on the standard. The
consumer ought, in the end, to benefit from this free-for-all of ideas and

The alternative to pressuring the market leader is to help further the
standard process. E.g. individuals can participate in IETF. Help the
standard come to completion earlier, and be better. Then, when the standard
is _done_ and proven through implementation in a couple places, only then
pressure the market leader to implement the standard.


[1] I've seen pressure to participate in standards groups from several
sources: individual users, big corporate customers, government, and
competitors. I'm not sure if there's any effective difference. Certainly
even if the pressure seems successful initially, it's hard to determine
later whether the participation was in good faith.

[last note] I just attended a BOF at the IETF which was about content
distribution: the business that Akamai and Inktomi are in. I wondered if it
was a similar situation -- isn't Akamai the market leader in taking people's
sites and caching them all at the edges of the network? Well, I didn't see
them in the WG (though they might well have been in the room, they weren't
authoring the drafts).

> -----Original Message-----
> From: B.K. DeLong []
> Sent: Tuesday, December 19, 2000 9:55 AM
> To:
> Subject: Re: Network World: IMPPlosion
> At 08:58 AM 12/19/2000 -0800, you wrote:
> >To the disappointment of the IETF community, instant messaging
> leader AOL
> >has not been involved with any of the three transport protocols or the
> >common message format.
> >"I'd be happier if AOL had submitted input to the documents or had
> >commented on any of the documents, but that didn't happen," says Leslie
> >Daigle, co-chair of the IETF instant messaging working group.
> I'm surprised no one has called AOL on the carpet regarding their total
> non-participation seeing as they have a majority of the IM market
> cornered
> with AIM and ICQ. If they've showed no interest so far in
> contributing to a
> standard then they simply need to be publicly bullied into participating.
> Simple as that.
> >--
> B.K. DeLong
> Research Lead
> ZOT Group
> work 617.542.5335 ext. 204
> cell 617.877.3271

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