The Business of Standards, Part Two: The Catalyst for Change

The proliferation of Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs) began in the mid-1980s as a response to a perceived threat by the Japanese Fifth Generation Computer Systems project (FGCS) to the U.S. semiconductor industry. Several major U.S. chip and computer makers decided that a joint research initiative would help them meet the threat to U.S. chip making dominance. Unfortunately, U.S. law considered joint activities of this type to be in violation of anti-trust and anti-competitive laws. The remedy to this issue was to pass enabling legislation (National Cooperative Research Act of 1984, Pub L. No. 98-462) (NCRA) which allowed the creation of consortia for joint research and development.  Soon afterward, the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium (MCC) was created to engage in joint research in multiple areas of computer and chip design.

It should be noted that – at this time – the formal standards organizations in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) had significant standardization activities occurring – especially in the area of the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) arena.  Recognizing that the environment was becoming more important to business, the leaders of the ISO and IEC IT standards bodies proposed a merger of the ISO and IEC committees – creating the first (and so far, only) Joint Technical Committee  (ISO/IEC  JTC1) to make standardization easier.

However, the formalists failed to provide adequate testing and verification of the very complex Open Systems Interconnect standards, and this need was quickly met by the Corporation for Open Systems (COS), (1986), a consortium of suppliers and users to ensure that OSI implementations were interoperable.  Although short lived (in standards years), COS showed the way for the use of the NCRA to be used “differently.” It showed that a private organization (a consortium) could accomplish quickly what the formal standards organizations couldn’t – and do it with a highly focused approach that didn’t need all the “international” approvals and compromise.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an explosion of similar organizations – all of which were created by companies to “expedite” time to market (as well as the creation of the market, it was hoped). The most successful of these was the Object Management Group (OMG) founded in 1989 to create a heterogeneous distributed object standard. The Manufacturing Automation Protocol/Technical Office Protocol (MAP/TOP), championed by GM and Boeing respectively, came to life during this time, as did the User Alliance for Open Systems. There were also consortia created to push a particular provider’s technology (88open Consortium and SPARC International come to mind).

Of course, these groups began to strain the limits of the 1984 cooperative R&D legislation, so Congress modified the law in 1993 and passed the National Cooperative Production Amendments of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-42, which amended the National Cooperative Research Act of 1984, Pub L. No. 98-462 and renamed it the National Cooperative Research and Production Act of 1993. (NCRPA)

And it is this Act that most consortia use to legitimize their existence. It provides limited immunity from anti-trust, provides some cover for anti-competitive behavior, and provides a basis for an organizational framework upon which to build your own consortium. However, this is not the end of the quest for “the nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from” syndrome. While the tools and mechanism for creating a consortium were now in place, the actual creation takes a little more effort.

The next post will look at how the “business of standards” has grown in the 20 years since the NCRPA was passed – and how consortium have changed standardization in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) world.

Carl Cargill
Principal Scientist

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