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Standards: Progress’s ‘Frenemy’

Fifteen-ish years ago I started working on the PR account for RealNetworks. People forget now how important this company was in bringing video and audio to the Internet. Back in the late 90s and early noughties, if you wanted to watch or listen to something online, RealPlayer was the default choice. There was no YouTube, no Spotify — even the BBC iPlayer was based on Real technologies. RealNetworks was the first company to align the major record labels into a product that could start to compete with the free music download networks like Napster — it was the obvious company for them to work with.

There’s a widely held perception that competition killed RealPlayer’s dominance, though that loss was accelerated by the feature-bloat of the software as the company tried to cling on to users*. Media Player being bundled with Windows certainly didn’t help matters but if you look at what has ultimately replaced RealPlayer (or is in the process of replacing it), it’s not any other single company.

It is standards.

The BBC for example, has recently standardised on AAC and HTTP streaming. YouTube is moving completely to HTML5 video (though that ‘standard’ is yet to be finalised). From the systems that produce and serve the content, to the devices that consume it, standards are winning out.

The result is greater diversity (one of our five ‘vectors of change’): royalty-free, open standards means that more people can create and share media easily, and so more people (and businesses) do. One or two big organisations suffer (Real, Adobe) but thousands more are enabled.

It’s worth considering this whenever there are apparent monopolies or dominant forces in the Internet sphere. Today’s technology supports the existence of super-scale networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but also marketplaces like Amazon and Ali Baba. That might not always be the case.

In fact, history suggests that it won’t*.

* Situations like this make me want to write a book of Star Wars wisdom, including this nugget from Leia: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” LinkedIn should take note…

* Regular readers may note that this sounds like a direct contradiction of yesterday’s post but it’s more a question of markets and time scales. I think Amazon’s dominance in retail is threatened by advances in discovery and payment technologies which reduce the friction of shopping across multiple sites. But these are some way off from having a serious impact right now. Meanwhile its web services businesses continues to acquire scale and capability much faster than competitors and so will likely survive longer until challenged by a different set of applied technologies.

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Tom Cheesewright