April 13, 2005
Paper is Universal
Paper is the universal medium. For centuries we have applied some sort of marking instrument: ink, charcoal, dye, paint, and toner to paper to express our ideas and to inform others.
Paper is available to everyone. Everyone can create and distribute their ideas on paper. Artists paint on paper, lawyer write contracts, and philosophers write deep thoughts about the nature of man on paper. Everyone has access to paper. Everyone can make paper.
Paper is versatile. Any kind of ink or marking instrument can be used on paper. The very first movie was "filmed" on paper. It was a flipbook of images creating an animation of a few seconds.
Digital Paper is Proprietary
With the digital age firmly stamped on our culture we now need a New Paper. Being digital means we can now incorporate different types of media all at once if we desire. These can include text, video, audio, 3D and possibly other medias for our often-ignored senses of smell, touch, and taste.
This New Paper is not going to be a physical item, but rather a file format. Presently to play a variety of media formats we need a Web browser and/or plug-ins such as Flash, Real, Windows Media, or QuickTime.
All of these technologies use their own proprietary paper. Even Web browsers! If Web browsers have their own unique tags then by default their 'flavour' of HTML is proprietary.
Proprietary Mediums are a Threat to our Freedoms
Not to be overly dramatic, but if the pen (ideas and their distribution) is truly mightier than the sword, then the singular control over a dominant media format by any company or individual presents a very real and frightening threat to our freedom.
To illustrate, let's reexamine our friendly and comfortable paper. Imagine a company comes along and says, "We invented this wonderful new ink. It's vibrant. It never globs up. It never fades, and comes in more colours than any other kind of ink."
I am sure the market would respond exceedingly favourably, and the new ink would be a smash success. But then the company says, "...oh, and by the way did we mention that our new ink will only display/work on our special new paper."
In this situation only one company makes and sells the special paper and ink. Obviously this would be ripe for abuse and the market would not accept it. We would choose to stick with the old standard paper and ink.
It gets worse in the digital world. If we accept a proprietary standard as presented by these companies, we become trapped. Our files (data, ideas, information, art) can only be played back on a specific system, which is controlled by one company. Window Media Player files only play on Windows Media, Flash only plays on Flash, or iTunes only play on iPods. In this case, who really controls the content? Who really owns it?
This situation was illustrated in a Salon.com article, by Andrew Leonard entitled "Musical Snares", where Andrew Leonard described his trial and tribulations of switching to iTunes when most of his music collection was already encoded as WMA files.
Agitated, Andrew writes, "I should have known better, because now I'm sitting exactly where Microsoft wants me, facing a significant "switching cost" if I want to adopt iTunes as my music-management software of choice."
Not to slam Microsoft, the situation exists in reverse as well. This is not just a situation with music lovers it is a universal business, artistic, and philosophical issue.
Open Standards are the Solution
A solution exists. Adopt data standards such as XHTML, MPEG, SMIL, XML, RTF, SGF, and VRML and participate in their improvement. Many companies (even those making proprietary paper) have adopted bits and pieces of certain standards, but the industry has yet to say let's get behind one standard. Make it equally accessibly to all.
Competition will flourish on the implementation of the playback and authoring environments. Not unlike how Panasonic, Toshiba, Sony, et al. compete making beter televisions and camcorders. The standards exist (DV, NTSC, DVD, etc.) and everyone competes to improve the infrastructure around the standard.
We developers can encourage this adoption, and save our customers money by insisting on their use, whenever possible. The result. Better products. Lower prices. And best of all, the creators of content maintain control over their intellectual property not a technology company.
Note: This was originally written in July 2002 and has been updated February 2004 Reposted here for Bryan (Now my only reader besides my wife).