Posts tagged "standards"

The Business of Standards, Part 1

Andrew S. Tenenbaum, professor of computer science at Vrije University in Amsterdam once said:  “The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.”

I like this quote because it, like so many trite sayings, covers a rather more complex issue that most in the Information and Communications Technology  (ICT) arena prefer to ignore. The issue is, simply, why are there so many standards?  Beyond this, where do these standards come from and who pays for them?

The answers are simple – standards don’t appear magically, and are often created by the very industries that criticize their proliferation.  Industry members invest a lot of time, resources, and energy in creating standards. Case in point, Andy Updegrove  – a lawyer who helps create consortia – lists 887 ICT consortia in his tracking guide.  All of these consortia are funded by companies and individuals who are busily engaged in writing standards.

So why do these companies support such a vast standards industry? Because the act of standardization, if properly managed, can confer competitive advantage.  Basic to this idea is that a standard is a change agent – its only function is to change the market in some way or another.

Most often, standards are described as being used to “level the playing field.” This is true only in a commodity arena, such as standard wheat or standard cotton. Nearly everything in the ICT industry that is “standardized” has associated differentiators (from performance to speed to cost) that are vital for market share retention and growth.

However, occasionally, a company or other entity may find creating a differentiator to the current standard difficult due to extenuating business reasons, such as IPR (intellectual property rights) payments, lack of technical expertise, or even possibly owning significant competing technology. In this case, the organization can try to create a competing product that incorporates the (newer/better/more open/other) technology. All the organization needs are enough allies and/or market share to either support and embrace this competing offering.   If it wants to do this more openly, it can create an organization to help.

This scenario has been played out at least 887 times. Every time it is repeated, at least one new Standards Setting Organization (SSO) is created, which in turn sets about creating standards.

Companies find it to their benefit to claim that their product conforms to a standard – it reassures buyers, builds confidence, and allows markets to be opened. However, this also creates a morass of conflicting standards and standards organizations, thereby limiting the value of all standards – both the good and the bad.

One question is what is the legal basis of  this proliferation of standards setting organizations (SSOs)? Well, it turns out that the doctrine of “unanticipated consequences” is to blame.

The next post will examine the roots for this proliferation and how the business of standards started.

Carl Cargill
Principal Scientist

Takeaways from the 14th Annual Privacy and Security Conference

I recently presented at the14th Annual Privacy and Security Conference held in Victoria, British Columbia.  There were several things which I took away from the meeting.

The first takeaway is that even though the three keynote speakers all looked at the issue of security and privacy from different perspectives – they all agreed that the level of interest in these two areas is growing as governments begin to recognize that the World Wide Web crosses borders with impunity.

The second takeaway was that standards creation is largely ignored. Mostly, the discussion was on standards and regulation implementation not on the act of creation. My presentation – “Whose Internet is it?” – focused on the groups that create basic Internet and telephony standards. The intent of the presentation was to convince people that they can (and should) get involved in creating the standards that drive the Web.

The final takeaway was that the distinction between standards and policy is becoming very blurred and the implications for national governments and for commercial providers are significant. On one hand, a nation has the right (and sometimes the duty), to protect itself and its citizens. For this, there exists the traditional standardization venues. On the other hand, there is the growing realization that these traditional bodies are ill equipped to deal with the increased pace of technology change that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) world is experiencing. Throw into this mix open source and IPR, social change, and increasingly, mobile telecommunications, and you have a volatile mix.

This is an interesting, challenging, and confusing time for those involved. The collision of regulations, innovation, policy, technology, and a host of other factors, of necessity, make the issue complicated and complex – but very relevant to how the Web will evolve. Adobe will continue to follow this issue as it unfolds, and we welcome your perspectives and comments.

Carl Cargill
Principal Scientist


W3C Web Platforms Docs: A Standards Perspective

Recently, Adobe, along with many others in the community, initiated a major community effort to build a common suite of developer-oriented documentation of the Open Web Platform as a community effort sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) .

One of the problems with standards is that generally, they are meant more for implementors and less for users of the standards (often by design). Those who actually write the standards and work on the committees that create them know that they are fragile interface descriptions – and this fragility is what requires the care in their crafting.

Standards specifications are necessarily quite detailed, in order to really promote interoperability and ensure things work the same. And this is where things get sticky. The implementations are based on the standard or the specification, and all standards (well, nearly all) are written in native language by people who are usually specialists in technology, as are many people who implement the developer-oriented documentation.

What’s exciting here is that the Web Platform Docs (WPD) effort is really targeted at the user community to help document the standards in a way that is useful to that community.

But a standard really only gains value when it is implemented and widely deployed. And this is why the WPD is so innovative. WPD is about use and deployment of the standard. It has tutorials on how to use a feature; it has examples of uses. This is the kind of material that the W3C working group does not have time to create, but values. It is what the vendors provide to get their implementations used.

The importance of the site, from a standards point of view, is that it helps build an informed user base. Not at all a simple task.

The Web is evolving – and in its evolution, it is forcing others to change as well. Ten years ago, this type of common activity, open to all (for both contributions and information) would have been if not unthinkable, at least foreign. With this announcement, the contributors and the W3C have (hopefully) begun to change the way standards are seen – to an easier and kinder environment.  And this is a good thing.

For an Adobe developer’s view, see: What’s one of the biggest things missing from the Web?

Technical Standards during ‘China’s 12th Five Year Plan’


A little over two months ago, the Chinese government’s Ministry of Science & Technology released a document entitled “The Special Planning Document for Technical Standards during China’s 12th Five Year Plan.” For short, I’ll call this the “SPD.” This SPD is one of a series published in recent months by the Chinese government on standards and standardization.

A little background is necessary to understand why the Chinese government is emphasizing standards—especially technical standards. China first emerged as a powerful global economic force largely as a foundry nation. In other words, it produced manufactured goods based on others’ designs – the classic commodity provider. The keys to competitiveness in this area include price, scale and flexibility of manufacturing, and the availability of the right workforce.

Perhaps realizing that China could not become a major player in the international information and communications technology (ICT) arena solely as a foundry nation, Chinese government policy now appears aimed at moving the country up the value chain to become a designer and creator of its own ICT products. It has also come to realize that standards, in the era of the Internet and widely and massively connected systems, are essential to market success. The Chinese government examined the German use of standards after World War II to promote that country’s industrial export policy; at the use of standards by the EU to foster a single European market; and at the use of standards by United States companies to drive the direction and focus of the information and communications technology sector. In short, they have realized that standardization is an important element of national industrial policy. The investment in standardization education, the increased participation by Chinese companies in a wide spectrum of SDOs, and the creation of Chinese consortia all point to an understanding of the value of standards to set direction in an industry.

The SPD opens with a bold assertion – “Technical standards are the technical basis of social and economic activities, a strategic resource for national development and a core element for international competitiveness.” This statement is the key to understanding the remainder of the document – which sets forth how technical standards are to be used and considered in planning, R&D, Advanced Development, Testing and Certification, Intellectual Property, and a host of other areas that are typical of life cycle planning in technology companies. More importantly, the Chinese government sees standards as encouraging innovation by limiting duplication, encouraging sharing, and making innovative ideas and products more available to other developers. Standards are also seen as coordinative activities, allowing disparate groups to develop solutions – but with the added caveat that these solutions must/may be applied to social, legal, and economic issues more easily. In total, the document presents an ideal and optimistic vision of standards as a strategic planning mechanism that can be used to spur their economy and various industries, both new and established.

However, it must also be remembered that this is a formal governmental planning document. Planning documents – especially long-term documents – can change, not because the original plan was faulty or incomplete, but because the market conditions upon which the plan was predicated have changed. For the Chinese strategy to succeed, the government will have to be flexible and adaptive in implementing the strategy, as there is no longer a static landscape in the world of ICT standardization.

The Information and Communications Technology sector standards environment in the United States and Europe is highly dynamic – as illustrated by activities like the creation of WebKit and open source; the appearance of W3C community groups; the increase in different Intellectual Property Rights rules within Standards Setting Organizations; the constant creation of new consortia; and the appearance of ad hoc standardization (as shown by social media). Over the last five years, ICT standardization has changed dramatically. Because formal standards organizations (ISO, IEC, and the ITU-based) move slowly, the ICT sector often relies on consortia and ad-hoc groups (WebKit, WHAT WG, and the like) for innovation and leadership in standards development. Additionally, planning in a period of significant change is challenging – and planning for standards is a second derivative of ICT planning. It both leads and is led by technology and technological planning – but with a healthy dose of marketing and economic and social strategy thrown in.

With that said, the SPD is a fascinating statement of Chinese governmental policy. One only wishes that there were corresponding standards strategies from other countries, recognizing the criticality of standards for national competitiveness, with which to compare with that of the Chinese government. There is an old saying in the standards world: “If you don’t play, you can’t complain.” If this document serves the purpose of causing others to re-examine their approaches and seek consensus, then it has served not only China, but also the world.