OSD 132: Create, standardize, repeat

Open standards and the gun industry.

Threaded fasteners were invented around 1500. The concept of threads is much older — dating at least to Archimedes’ screw in 234 B.C., and probably originating hundreds of years before that — but for a long time, threads were mostly used on large-scale devices for, say, moving water. It wasn’t until around 1500 that they became widely used to fasten things together. The nuts and bolts of nuts and bolts (sorry) went like this:

  • The Handmade Era, ~1500–1775. The technology did not exist to repeatably produce the same exact thread pitch at scale. So threads were cut by hand, or on machines with unreliable output.

  • The Proprietary Standards Era, ~1775–1850. Screw-cutting machines had been theorized, and even existed in various forms, for a couple hundred years at this point. But in 1775, Jesse Ramsden created the first one that really worked for commercial production. This unlocked the invention of modern nuts, bolts, and screws. Now every company could make as many different precise thread pitches as they wanted. But then every company went off and did exactly that, which turned out to be a new problem.

  • The Open Standards Era, ~1850–present. Threads could be cut precisely, but the proliferation of company-specific standards meant that different companies’ nuts and bolts wouldn’t work together. In 1841, Joseph Whitworth published the first open standard for screw threads, and he convinced Great Britain’s rail companies to adopt it. Whitworth’s spec, the British Standard Whitworth, remains in use today alongside the many other open thread standards that have been invented since. Today, essentially all threaded fasteners are cut to some open standard.

In a pinch, you could distill the history down to this: threaded fasteners were invented, were mostly useless for 350 years, and then they suddenly became one of the most important construction technologies in history. Open standards made the difference.

The corollary here is that industries that are doing well while still living in their proprietary standards era will go to the moon when they switch to open standards. And that brings us to guns. (Remember guns? It’s a newsletter about guns.)

The gun industry is similar to most, in that it’s got all three eras going at once:

  • The Handmade Era. Some 1911 parts live in this zone, as do (for the most part) guns like MP5s, AK-pattern rifles, and generally anything that requires welding, drilling, or cutting to assemble.

  • The Proprietary Standards Era. This is a zone where a lot of belt and holster gear hangs out. Muzzle devices are here too. As are most magazines, pistol slides, and, well, most gun parts.

  • The Open Standards Era. The most prominent example in this zone is actually one of the oldest open standards around: ammo. The entire gun industry is built around really good open standards for ammo. The standards have to be good, because if they’re not, your gun explodes. (Two organizations, SAAMI and C.I.P. manage ammo standards.) Other open standards include M-LOK and Picatinny rail, barrel thread pitches, STANAG magazines, the MOLLE and ADAPT web gear systems, and the emerging 1.375x24 standard for the back end of suppressors. The entire AR-15 is a de facto open standard at this point, too.

Going back to our corollary above, there’s a simple way to grow the market for gun stuff: move products from the proprietary standards era to the open standards era. There are two reasons that creates so much value.

First, it’s just useful for customers to lower their switching costs.

Second, open standards cause more companies to be founded, because founders can get right to building their product instead of having to build a standard first. And they get a preinstalled base of customers to target. This is the big one, because it’s self-accelerating. Open standards cause more innovation, innovation brings in customers, customers drive innovation. Rinse and repeat.

The best example of this is the biggest wealth creation event in history, the invention of the web (well, the World Wide Web if we’re being official about it). TCP/IP had been around for decades as an open standard, and lots of companies were building proprietary applications on top of it. CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL were large multinational companies doing their best to kill each other in a battle for control of the internet’s application layer.

Then Tim Berners-Lee came along and wiped them all from history by … writing an open standard and posting about it on Usenet.

Standardization isn’t always the right answer, of course. Open standards are a bad way to build the end-user experience. (Ask anyone who’s had to use a Linux GUI.) But open standards make the most powerful building blocks. To find room for innovation in the gun industry, look at where we’ve got proprietary standards. Then turn those to an open standard, and watch what people build on top of it.

This week’s links

Thunder Ranch is for sale

The listing is linked above. All 877 acres can be yours for a cool $6.5 million.

Research paper on the internet’s susceptibility to solar superstorms (PDF)

This is from last week’s ACM SIGCOMM 2021 conference. Not gun-related, but it’s right at the intersection of deep tech and deep prepping, so there are maybe 37% of you who are going to be very into this.

From the abstract:

In this paper, we investigate the impact of solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months. We discuss the challenges posed by such activity and currently available mitigation techniques. Using real-world datasets, we analyze the robustness of the current Internet infrastructure and show that submarine cables are at greater risk of failure compared to land cables. Moreover, the US has a higher risk for disconnection compared to Asia. Finally, we lay out steps for improving the Internet’s resiliency.

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