An Investigation Into Standards and Innovation Part 4 of 6: Standards evolve a Webbed presence

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Laurent Liscia, OASIS

I should preface this section of our standards adventure with a disclosure. In my opinion, information and communication technology (ICT) standards are radically different from manufactured goods and hardware standards. And as such they deserve their own treatment. What follows will explain why.

Very roughly (the actual history was much more complicated than that, and is portrayed with marvelous skill by Shapiro and Varian in their “Information Rules”), ICT became more prevalent and the computer, and more importantly the data it held took center stage in the workplace; and as companies multiplied in the field, interoperability between the many software products available looked more and more like a great idea.

Certainly customers for these packages started demanding that different systems talk to each other; and vendors realized they couldn’t say “just buy everything from me and it’ll all work together”. Demand for compatibility standards arose from the marketplace rather than the government—in fact government was part of the marketplace. Many ad hoc or “de facto” standards bodies sprang into existence to accompany this need and resulted in amazing standards proliferation. These were marketing efforts for the most part rather than rigorous specification processes. Existing trade associations that had nothing to do with software saw an opportunity to cobble together standards for their verticals and magically introduce a new revenue stream. The big acronym was EDI: electronic data interchange, and EDI schemes popped up in millions of flavors everywhere. This was the 90s and at this point standardization, while more commonplace than ever before, was still a reactive effort, a club of enemies willing to bury the hatchet just long enough to acknowledge that an innovation had occurred.

In that sense, standards in the 90s were not innovative. Much like the standards developed post-war in de jure bodies, they would simply conclude the disruptive innovation process with lip service cooperation.

In the first decade of its existence, the World-Wide-Web seemed to have the same impact on the standards scene as previous innovations. Big vendors saw it as a product opportunity; but for a while, the standards process was taken out of their hands, and a new breed of standard body introduced a new form of standardization that was much more open in its recruitment, and more rigorous in its output. This was the age of the IETF Request for Comment, and the W3C’s guidelines. Anecdotally, the W3C’s accessibility guidelines were my first introduction to the world of standards. I was running a Web engineering company called Webmotion at the time, and we had brought in a blind man into our offices to test a Web site implementation of the guidelines. The experience was not exactly conclusive—but that’s about standard testability in the real world and is a story for another day.

Click here to read Part 1 of Laurent’s six part series.
Click here to read Part 2 of Laurent’s six part series.
Click here to read Part 3 of Laurent’s six part series.

***Please look for the fifth article in Laurent’s six part series on the topic of Standards and Innovation in next month’s issue of Information Management News.***