Standards and the Status Quo

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

In an otherwise useful essay on the convergence of open standards and open source software development efforts, Adobe's Dave McAllister makes a statement that's worth challenging, since it reiterates a common misconception. In the opening of his essay, Dave states:

Standards are designed to stabilize a technology or interface, package or connection. Open source is driven by continual development. Standards tend to update and publish on a schedule measured in years, while open source updates and publishes in sometimes days. Standards drive the status quo. Open source  (often) drives innovation.

The first part of that statement is crucially accurate: the value of a standard derives entirely from the industry agreeing to freeze some element of technology or interface.  But the later statement that "Standards drive the status quo" at the expense of innovation is misleading at best.

Standards do anything but drive the status quo – they enable new devices and networks to become possible that never did before the standards were agreed upon.


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In fact, standards drive radically more innovation than perhaps any other tool at our disposal. What standards “freeze” is not innovation, but base layers of technology that allow unlimited innovation above that layer. Without standards, there would be no Internet, no Web, no WiFi enabled devices, no telecommunications, no mobile devices. The only things frozen in the Internet and Web are the protocols that allow them to exist. After that, the sky’s the limit. Stated another way, without interoperability standards, network-based systems couldn’t exist at all. That’s a very small tradeoff in innovation.

In point of fact, the only reason that antitrust and competition regulators allow head to head competitors to get together in closed rooms and agree to do things the same way is because the practice enables innovation, rather than perpetuates the status quo.  Absent these anticipated benefits, such actions would not only violate civil law, but criminal law as well.

There is, of course, one way that standards can stifle innovation. That can occur when the wrong standards are set.  Decisions made in setting standards should be very carefully made, since the consequences must often be lived with for a very long time (think railway gauges). But that’s where making sure that the organizations that create them have the right type of open processes comes in. 

Contrast, for example, a standard created within a respected standards development organization like the W3C. Now imagine a "de facto" standard created and owned by a single vendor that has become dominant in the marketplace.

In the former case, any interested stakeholder can become involved in the initial creation of the standard, and in its later updating to meet the evolving needs of the marketplace.  In the latter, to the extent that the standard changes, it changes to meet the unique needs of the owner of the standard, which first and foremost will be to maintain its position of dominance.

So the moral of the story is this: open standards allow innovation to flourish, while proprietary standards not only preserve the status quo, but lock up the marketplace in a proprietary dungeon as well.

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