Standards Wars: Situations, Strategies and Outcomes

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.

The two articles that most directly address these issues are the Editorial, which is titled Standards Wars and Mutally Assured Destruction, and the Feature Article, Standards Wars: Situations, Strategies and Outcomes.

The Editorial compares the futility of the worst types of standards wars to the arms race waged between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, which relied on the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (aptly short formed to the acronym “MAD”). Among those current confrontations referred to above, the HD DVD – Blu-ray Group is most clearly comparable to the futility of the nuclear arms race. And, like that arms race, serves as an example to inspire more reasonable behavior in other settings.

The Feature Article takes a more nuanced view, pointing out that some standards “wars” can actually be beneficial, and could better be called “standards competitions.” Examples of this type of activity would include the first wireless standards that were developed (e.g., Bluetooth, WiFi, HomeRF and so on), not all of which succeeded, but some of which proved to be useful and differentiated. Moreover, they were developed and available when the hardware and software vendors were ready to start selling. Absent a “competition,” we would be left with either a single compromise (and compromised) standard, or a long wait to fill in the voids with new standards, where the initial standard wasn’t the right tool for the job.

The issue is balanced out by a somewhat updated version of the blog entry A New French Revolution? and a significantly expanded version of Where (if Anywhere) are the Boundaries of the Open Source Concept?

If anything in this issue sets you thinking, share some of your thoughts with others, using the “Reply” button on the grey bar below. It’s time we got some discussions going here. I’ll be happy to moderate anything you’d like to get started.

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