The Standards Blog

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Geeklog and the Joys (Sigh) of Software Upgrading

General News

This morning I got an email from a regular Standards Blog reader with some unwelcome news - he informed me that the RSS, Atom and other feeds at my blog were dead, and that he hadn't gotten a new posting notice in a month.  Sigh.  Not the type of email you like to get, so I'm hoping that this posting reaches everyone that it's supposed to.

The reason for the problem is that the developer that supports ConsortiumInfo.org has been upgrading the version of Geeklog upon which this site is based.  Unfortunately, it hasn't been going well at all, in part because the developer isn't familiar with Geeklog, and in part, frankly, because they aren't checking the things that they should as they make changes (like syndication feeds).  Complicating things is the fact that this is a "second generation" blog, which began as home-grown software.  Later, it was migrated to Geeklog when I wanted to make it more sophisticated than the original setup could support (e.g., by adding the News Picks to the right). Along the way, a few weirdnesses were built in, all of which (naturally) are undocumented.  So it's been a challenge to the guy who has tried to figure it all out.

I chose Geeklog in part because it's a really powerful tool, but also because it's the product of a FOSS project application.  Given that I write a lot about FOSS, I thought I ought to b e using FOSS to support this blog (that "walk the talk" thing).  That's had some downsides, though, because Geeklog is a developer's tool, and not a mass-market application.  Consequently, so far as I'm aware, the type of "Geeklog for Idiots" user manual that would be very useful to someone like me just doesn't exist.  On the other hand, the Geeklog community has been great about answering the questions my developer has posted at the Geeklog site. 

As a result, if anyone out there is a Geeklog ace and would be willing to answer my questions from time to time, that would be great, and would save me a lot of grief, as it would help me become a more efficient and productive Geeklog user, without having to run up my developer tab.  It would also save me a lot of heartache.

Raising Venture Capital and Other Risk Factors

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Here in New England, where I practice law and have been representing startups for thirty years, we have a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, we have great universities, like MIT and Harvard, with professors and students that come up with great inventions that new companies can be formed to commercialize.  We also have lots of folks that have done it before, that can act as mentors and role models.  Those same successful entrepreneurs start more companies, and also act as angel investors for first timers.  It's not quite as vibrant as Silicon Valley, but we always come in second on all meaningful measures - numbers of new companies formed and funded, and so on.

On the negative side, we've got a lot of venture capital firms that call the Route 128 area home.  If that sounds like a strange statement to make, you might want to read my most recent column for Mass High Tech, which tells you why you might be better off launching a new startup in Omaha, Nebraska than in Cambridge, Mass.

Product Evolution and Standards "Swarms"

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Three news clips I posted yesterday highlight the disorderly, but ultimately productive, way in which products and standards evolve in tandem during times of innovation.

The first clip is a press release announcing the completion of a new USB connector design standard.  A really small connector design. How small? That large object to the left of the connector in this picture  looks like a flat camera battery to me. The reason for creating the new standard is because mobile devices are getting smaller at the same time that more and more features (camera, video, music, wireless, etc.) are being crammed inside a single mobile device.

The second article provides an update on a delayed wireless USB standard that would eliminate the need for a connector at all. And the third announces the completion of a new WiFi-compatible standard to make mobile security as easy to set up as the push of a button – whether you are accessing data wirelessly or physically, using a USB connector. As the standard is extended, other wireless standards (like Near Field Communications – a very short range standard) will be supported as well.

You can expect that the devices you buy in the next year or two will use one, two or even all three of these standards.   Or you might see completely different connection and data-transfer standards in use, all chosen from what might be called a "swarm" of overlapping standards that are continuously being developed around mobile devices.  Logically, you might wonder whether this is a good thing, or simply yet another case of too many standards being created to do the same job.

In this case, I think it's the former rather than the latter.  Let's see if evolution in the physical world provides an example of why this would be so.

Standards and Disruptive Technologies

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A long story by David Strom at InformationWeek called Five Disruptive Technologies to Watch in 2007 couldn't help but catch my eye on New Years Day.  The reason is that all five technologies, and the strategies of the vendors that are promoting them, rely upon standards – in most cases, fundamentally.  That's no surprise, because disruption by definition is painful, and no one in the supply chain (including end users) likes pain.  Providing a convincing argument why the resulting pleasure will more than offset the pain is therefore imperative.

One type of pain that vendors and end users particularly dislike is the risk inherent in buying into a new technology or service model.  For a vendor, that means investing in lots of R&D, set up and marketing in a new product that may not sell.  For an end user, it means buying into a new product or service that may prove to be poorly supported with (at best) little competition or choice provided, and (at worst) ultimate abandonment and the need to switch again.

One of the best ways to mitigate against this type of risk for both sides of the sales equation is to create standards that everyone agrees to adopt, ensuring that there are many stakeholders that have a vested interest in seeing the disruptive model succeed.  In today's increasingly interoperable and networked world, those standards are in any case often essential for the model to work at all, blunting the competitive urge to try and own the whole opportunity.  The result (only up to a point, of course), is an "all for one and one for all" coordinated promotional campaign that seeks to project the image that the new technology is one that you need and just have to get, whether it be a new architecture being pitched to Fortune 100 companies, or yet another entertainment format being promoted to consumers.

Topsy and the Standards War

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Standards are all around us.  Being invisible, it's easy to forget they exist, because they generally work. Only when they don't - or when they threaten not to - do they tend to attract attention. One sad example of that reality was the subject of an excellent Nova special that focused on the role of construction and safety standards in the context of the failure of the Twin Towers on 9/11. And now, standards have become The Talk of the Town.

The opening pages of the New Yorker may seem like an unlikely venue for an essay on standards, given that the Talk section is usually dedicated to a consciously eclectic mix of editorial outrage and stylishly constructed vignettes celebrating the trivial. Nonetheless, the advent of competing next-generation DVD format players has inspired even the New Yorker to take notice. Of course, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of articles on the same topic have already appeared almost everywhere else that they possibly could.

Be that as it may, the article in question is entitled "Standard-Bearers," and opens smartly in true Talk of the Town fashion as follows:

In 1888, at Thomas Edison's laboratory, in West Orange, New Jersey, a macabre event took place. While reporters watched, dogs were placed on a metal plate that had been hooked up to a thousand-volt alternating-current generator and electrocuted one by one. Edison wanted to convince the public that alternating current (which was offered by a competitor, Westinghouse) was too dangerous to be used in the home, and his own direct-current technology should be the national standard for electricity.

Edison's tactics may have been extreme, but his purpose would have been readily understood by the marketers of Sony's Blu-ray technology and those of Toshiba's HD DVDs: both companies are trying to convince us that their product will be the standard high-definition successor to DVDs.

Online News Reporting at Internet Speed

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Remember the phrase, "Internet Speed?"

Wasn't that a phrase from the Bubble Years, when Everything Changed, and if you didn't Get It you Were History?  Now, of course, Internet Speed, as a phrase, is So Last Century. 

Except when it comes to on-line journalism.  

This blog entry is in part a mea culpa account from the blogging trenches.  Mea Culpa, because the first draft of my last blog entry turns out to have been very inaccurate.  But only partly "my bad," because it was consistent with a reliable source, andI corrected it very quickly when I learned that it was wide of the mark.  Still, the experience is salutary, and worth recording in some detail for what it indicates about contemporary on-line journalism (something I've written about from time to time  before, to link to just a few prior stories), and particularly for those that are required to pump out many stories a day under the new on-line model of single-screen, rat-a-tat reportage.

This particular morality play began early this morning, when at around 6:30 AM I read a story by Steve Lohr in the print version of the New York Times headlined:

Hoping to be a Model, I.B.M. Will Put Its Patent Filings Online

Wow, I thought — IBM will put all of its 40,000 patent filings on line!  Does that include confidential applications as well?  Here's what the first line of the story said:

Meet the PCI Security Standards Council

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Today is launch day for a new consortium I've been helping structure for the last several months — the PCI Security Standards Council, LLC.   You should be happy to hear about this new organization, because its purpose is to tighten the security procedures that protect your financial data against theft and fraud, not only globally but on an end-to-end basis, from point of sale to debiting of your account. 

The new organization was formed by the largest credit card brands in the world:  MasterCard Worldwide, Visa International, American Express, Discover Financial Services, and JCB (a Japanese brand).  At the heart of the organization is the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard, originally created prior to formation of PCI by aligning Visa's Account Information Security (AIS)/Cardholder Information Security (CISP) programs with MasterCard's Site Data Protection (SDP) program.  Version 1.0 of the standard was contributed to the consortium for further evolution, maintenance and application.  Version 1.1 is already completed, and becomes effective today.

The PCI DSS establishes a set of principles for maintenance of security, accompanied by requirements for demonstrating that those principles have been effective met and maintained.   The standard addresses the establishment, maintenance, and monitoring of security measures for each type of participant in the transaction process, including merchants, processors, point-of-sale (POS) vendors and financial institutions, and includes requirements for security management, policies, procedures, network architecture, software design, among other requirements.  By agreeing on a common standard, all participants in the credit extension and clearance process will have a single rulebook to operate under, providing greater efficiency and lower compliance costs for those being assessed, and greater certainty for those relying on their security practices.  You can read more about the PCI DSS here. 

For MA Readers: May 2 Standards Event

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The Route 128 Area of Massachusetts is one of the major centers of technology innovation in the US, receiving (as just one indicator) the second largest amount of venture capital of any area in the U.S. every quarter since such statistics have been kept. It is also the headquarters of more standards consortia than any other state, with such notable organizations as the W3C, OASIS, WS-I, OMG, Open Geospatial Consortium, among many others calling the Baystate home.  And yet the word "standards" is almost unknown in the programming of the local trade associations, and many high tech entrepreneurs, VCs and journalists are far less aware of the importance of standards, IMHO, than they should be.  But then again, I would say that, wouldn't I?

Be that as it may, a notable exception to the absence of standards programming in the local landscape will occur on May 2 from 8 - 11, when I'll be moderating and presenting at a program hosted by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, the State's largest technology trade association.  The title of the program is "Evolving Technology Standards," and the venue will be PTC's facility at 140 Kendrick Street in Needham.  The other presenters will be:

  • Doug Johnson, Sun Microsystems Corporate Standards
  • Ted Morgen, President,  Skyhook Wireless 
  • Peter Roden, Acting Director of Technology, OASIS

If you're interested in attending at a reduced rate, read on.

Standards Wars: Situations, Strategies and Outcomes

General News

There have been more stories in the news about standards than ever before. The good news is that this raises awareness about how important standards are, particularly in areas like information and communications technology. The bad news is that a lot of this news is about "standards wars." Recent sagas include the seemingly endless HD DVD - Blu-ray Group battle to the death (taking content owners and consumers along for the ride); the head butting and accusations between proponents of WiFi, which has been adopted in most of the world, and China, whose home-grown WAPI alternative was recently voted down in ISO; the rivalry between two camps in the IEEE working group chartered to develop and adopt a UWB standard (which ultimately led to its disbanding); and, of course, the contest most often covered at this blog: OpenDocument Format vs. the Microsfoft XML Reference Schema. As a result, I've dedicated the March issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin to examining the phenomenon of Standards Wars, as well as the lesser skirmishes and escalations that can usually (but not always) avoid full scale combat.

That was Then and This is Now: SPARC International and OpenSPARC.net

General News

In what must have seemed to many as a bold move, Sun Microsystems last week announced that it would released the source code for its UltraSparc T1 processor under the GPL, supported by a new organization that it calls OpenSPARC.net.  But to those that have been around for a while, the announcement had an eerily familiar sound to it, and that sound was the echo of an organization called SPARC International.  Formed 18 years ago to license the SPARC chip design to multiple vendors to ensure second sourcing for the hardware vendors that Sun hoped would adopt it, SPARC International seemed to be every bit as revolutionary for its time as Sun's new initiative does today.

Back then, RISC chips were brand new, and several companies opted to use the new architecture as the basis for their newest and hottest chips, including Motorola, which launched its 88000 processor as a successor to its vastly successful 68000 line (the heart of the Apple machines of that era), and an upstart chip company then called MIPS Computer Systems.  Central to the appeal of the new architectural design was the "reduced instruction set computer" concept that permitted a more simplified, faster design, and which lent its introductory initials to provide the RISC name. 

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