Why you can never have too many standards

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 7, 2013
Why is that we expect standards to surface perfectly formed at the first attempt? Vendors are allowed trial and error when innovating products. Enterprises deserve the same leeway to develop buyside specifications.

symbol of standardization
Whenever technology goes off in new directions, a debate about standards will surely follow.

Entrepreneurs instinctively dislike standards, which tend to reflect the status quo that their innovation seeks to disrupt. Enterprises, on the other hand, generally welcome standards — especially when they're genuinely open — because they tend to reduce costs through enabling reuse and encouraging competition.

The debate is always about getting the balance right between these two opposing points of view.

Ben Kepes, in a diginomica guest post on Thursday, argued that we should be "relaxed about standards" in the cloud, letting market forces guide the evolution of interoperability amongst emerging digital technologies. This was in response to several recent discussions about cloud standardization, including the Open Group's Platform 3.0 initiative, which I had written about earlier in the week.

Ben's argument, in essence, is that no standard can ever be successful without market adoption, and that therefore we should just leave it to the market to allow 'de facto' standards to emerge. He was especially scathing about standards that arise through "the creation of big committees filled with stuffed shirts," which I think we can safely assume was meant as a swipe at the Open Group, among others.

Two arguments

The trouble with this argument is that it's actually two arguments, separated by a non-sequitur. The first proposition is one that I'm sure we can all agree with, given that the world operates these days pretty much exclusively in a free-market economy: no standard can ever be successful without market adoption. It's the second proposition that is a great deal shakier, the assumption that somehow the best standards will simply emerge out of whatever vendors bring to market.

Fortunately, few enterprises share the view that it's in their best interests to passively sit around waiting for the right standards to arise in the market so that they can then select them through their purchases. They prefer a more proactive approach, even if in some cases that means sprinkling a few stuffed shirts around a selection of big committees. They know that, in a free market economy, standards need a helping hand to get established. No self-respecting entrepreneur is ever going to invest money in a would-be standard without the conviction that a market will exist for it.

Market failure

In many cases, it's downright frustration with the failure of the market to offer meaningful standardization that fuels a standards initiative. Next month, W3C and OpenSocial will be holding a workshop in San Francisco to explore the need for standards for social business. The impetus for this is a lack of interoperability, a common refrain of standards promoters:

The demand for interoperable social standards is growing, yet the landscape of specifications is fragmented, making it difficult to create new software that serves the needs of both users and organizations ...

The OpenSocial Foundation and W3C believe that now is the time to make progress on the standards in this space. These standards will enable the transformation of today's enterprises to tomorrow's cross-enterprise social businesses and to create a whole new round of innovation across the Web.

A recent blog post by one of the committee members, Dachis Group's Dion Hinchcliffe, pointed why market dynamics are unlikely to produce the needed standards if left to their own devices:

... already successful social networks can easily be tapped by new ones to grow, at least if they're open past a certain point. In other words, the services with the people in them already often don't want to be connected to the services that don't have them, no matter how good it might be for their users. To them, it can sometimes seem like a matter of survival not to support standards.

Too many standards?

But hang on a minute. Aren't we in danger of having too many standards here? We have W3C and OpenSocial working on standards for social business. Ben's post linked out to a typically eloquent argument by Simon Wardley making the case for an AWS-compatible open source reference model for cloud computing and describing several of the competing initiatives aiming to do so. Meanwhile, as I wrote last week, the Open Group wants to define a standard architecture for the whole shebang.

On top of that, the European Commission is aiming to define policies for cloud computing later this year, while in Germany last week a new financial exchange for commodity trading of outsourced computing and storage was launched. As one diginomica reader tweeted last week:


Easy to make fun

Of course it's easy to make fun of standards efforts when there's a proliferation of competing or conflicting initiatives. Oh the irony!

But why should standards be any different from any other form of innovation? We don't expect technologies to surface perfectly formed at the first attempt, so neither should we expect standards to arrive without a long and painful gestation of trial and error — which may include casting some aside when they fail to win market adoption.

In his initial comment to my post, Ben posed a question: "If a standard flaps its wings in a forest somewhere, but no one in the world actually cares or adopts that standard, does it really exist?"

My answer is that, when those wings flap, then at least it means someone has started thinking about the need for a standard. Don't mock it for being just an idea at that stage — extend the same courtesy that you would to any other startup concept . If others start taking an interest and begin drafting it then that suggests the world does actually care. If in the fullness of time it resonates with enough people or enterprises, then in due course it may indeed end up being adopted.

Pesky standards

Remember too that standards exist to benefit customers, and for that reason vendors often resist, ridicule and trash them. Jon Reed's weekly roundup kindly picked up my Platform 3.0 post this week, but what caught my eye as I scanned through was a link to a post by Marco Arment about the demise of Google Reader. Google's rejection of RSS — one of those pesky standards developed by self-appointed technology wonks such as Dave Winer — is typical of what is happening in today's world, writes Arment:

Google, Facebook, and Twitter ... have grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. 'Sunset' it. 'Clean it up.' 'Retire' it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

This is why we can't afford to leave standards to the market, trusting the bona fides of the supposedly 'do no evil' vendors that reign over it. Enterprises must protect their interests too, pooling their buying power to push the market in certain directions.

Even if standards have their failings, they remain a crucial tool that helps to level the playing field when large vendors dominate in a free market economy.

Image credit: © rook76 - Fotolia.com

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