Jesting at the Savoy court
Leonardo Chiariglione –

It is a great pleasure for me to address representatives of the European Communication Authorities tonight at the Royal Palace of Turin. This time I have been asked to give a few words while you are having a dinner and I cannot avoid thinking that different societies have had different attitudes vis--vis the role of silence and speech during means. In Korea meals used to be eaten in silence based on Confucianism’s teaching that "silence is golden". In European monasteries Scriptures are read while monks ate their meals. On the other hand jesters entertained the king in medieval courts, presumably with some silence on the part of those attending the banquets...

The Royal Palace of Turin was the residence the Savoy dynasty from the 16th century until 1866. I am sure that in these rooms that many banquets were held, some of them with jesters. Their role was of course to entertain the king and they had better entertain him well or else... On the other hand jesters had a unique possibility: through their jokes they could tell the king things that no one else dared to say.

So, tonight, you should think that you are a king (actually, you are, sort of...) and I am your jester, and I may well inject arguments that no one dares to utter in your courts. But because I am your jester it will be up to you to take my words as serious arguments or as jokes. I am also not sure I will be a good entertainer but, if I will not be – or you will not like my words – I hope you will not chop my head.

Let me start with my interpretation of one of the problems you deal with in your daily functions. I will summarise it this way: given all the technologies around with which many users’ needs can be satisfied and the freedom of entrepreneurs to use the technologies of their choice, how can a correct market dynamics be preserved while best motivating entrepreneurs to invest in technologies that maximise both their profits and user satisfaction.

I will offer you two examples to elaborate on my interpretation. In the first we see an ICT company created 30 years ago that has set and owns a wide range of ICT standards that have provided huge benefits to society, while at the same time creating for itself wealth for hundreds of billion dollars. I am told, though, that in the process the company has been the target of countless complaints and of countless attempts by your peers to bring its behaviour to what is considered the accepted standard.

In the second example we see a digital media standardisation group created 20 years ago that has set international standards that have transformed our society beyond recognition and have ushered in the age of interoperable digital media. As these standards have been made openly accessible at Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory terms, thousands of companies have created wealth for themselves for hundreds of billion dollars. But I am not aware that a single complaint has been lodged against the group.

I know that some people will say that the former example is “good” because it was the result of a competition, while the latter is at best “tolerable” because there was no competition. But, going beyond what is the expected role of a jester, I will state my disagreement. What do we mean by competition? Is it something like we have seen for 27 years between Sony and JVC for the video cassette recorder? Do we really need a competition of assembly lines and retail shops in the information society?

I introduce to you a much more sophisticated form of competition, the one that has been consistently applied by the standardisation group of the second example. Every time a new standard is deemed necessary, requirements for it are published and technology requested to anybody. The submitted component technologies are thoroughly tested and I will spare you the battles between minds on the merits of this against the other technology until the standard is agreed and balloted 3 times in the national standards organisations where, again, arguments can be made.

I also know that some will say that both examples are evil because both are monopolies. But let me make a comparison. In the former example if you want interoperability (and who does not want it in a communication system?) you are tied to the same supplier and you play the role that the company controlling the technology permits you to play. In the latter example interoperability is a given and everybody has the freedom to play any role: creator, content or service provider, retailer, manufacturer consumer and so on, because the technology is accessible by anybody. God bless the monopoly.

Of course all these are a just some funny words told by a jester at the Savoy court and you should not pay too much attention. The only attention is for me to see if the executioner may not be waiting behind that door.