Friday, March 02, 2007

Software, light bulbs & standards: Banning incandescent bulbs akin to banning FLOSS

I have been closely following the incandescent light vs. compact fluorescent light (CFL) debate (BBC, /., ABC , The Hindu) which has moved into the legislatures of many provinces (here in Canada: Ontario, New Brunswick), states (in the U.S.: California, ), countries (Australia) and regions (EU).

I find this debate has interesting parallels to the software world, in particular the Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) world.

The light bulb debate has been focused on (banning) a particular implementation technology (incandescent) when it should be focused on metrics (i.e. the proposed "standards" say something like "any light bulbs except incandescents"). Instead of banning a particular technology you instead want to put in place sensible, reasonable metrics and apply these as your standard. In this case, the standard should be some combination of energy/light output efficiency (light output per energy input, perhaps in lumens / watt) and luminous efficacy (you might also include something banning or limiting or imposing recovery of, nasty things like heavy metals, organochlorides, etc. and level of recyclability, etc. in your standard...). By creating a metrics-based standard, it is open to be used to measure innovation.

Creating a "standard" through the banning of a technology restricts innovation. And GE's announcement of high efficiency incandescent bulbs shows how short-sighted and misdirected implementation-based standards are.

This is very similar to how FLOSS software has been excluded from many governments and other organizations: the "standard" that is applied is one defined by a particular implementation, such as "must comply with Software X from Big Vendor Y", not a measurable metric or agreed-on open standard. With such fuzzy, incomplete or completely opaque "standards" -- often obfuscated by interested parties -- compliance is not possible and the standard itself is an impossible moving target.

There are also parallels between the software standards world and light bulb standards in the area of intellectual property (sorry Russell!): let's say I invented the incanfluorobabar light bulb which was 100 times more efficient than any existing light bulb, was inexpensive, safe, lasted 50k hours, produced perfect sun-like light, and was made from recycled newsprint, CO2, and straw (!), and I had the technology locked-up in patents world-wide. If legislatures around the world legislated standards which said that only incanfluorobabar were allowed to be sold in their countries, then everyone would have to pay me royalties to implement this technology, and competing technologies would have little incentive to innovate as it would be to difficult/expensive to change the legislation. Even if it was not legislated but expressed as a de facto (read CLOSED) standard in procurement, other technologies would suffer. Do you see parallels to the FLOSS universe?

[To be clear, I very much want a standard put in place to increase the energy efficiency of light bulbs and I am in no way an incandescent bulb fanboy...]

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