Why do we write standards?
Lee Anne Phillips
leeanne at leeanne.com
Mon Nov 8 22:23:21 GMT 1999
At Monday 11/8/99 03:01 AM -0500, David Megginson wrote:
>Paul Prescod <paul at prescod.net> writes:
> > My main question isn't about whether XML should be standalone or a
> > derivative of SGML. My question is: "Why do you agree with formal
> > standards sometimes and then other times say that we should just
> > depend on 'common sense'?" My personal opinion is that anywhere
> > interoperability is truly required, it should be formally
> > specified. I mean the main argument against the infoset (and groves
> > before the infoset, and ESIS before groves) was: "Well that's all
> > common sense, isn't it?"
>That's a fair question. The short answer is that I disagree with your
>opinion -- standardization is a kind of regulation, and deciding when
>and how to regulate is a very difficult balancing act between benefits
>(the Socialist view) and costs (the Libertarian view).
I would disagree with the characterization of standardization as a
Socialist/Libertarian dichotomy. Standards are not regulations in any sense
of the word. Standards are primarily developed and *voluntarily* adhered to
by commercial, capitalist interests. SAE sizing of nuts and bolts were a
capitalist invention that eventually put an end to individual crafting of
complete articles of trade and ushered in the era of factories,
interchangeable parts, and mass production. In short, civilization as we
The W3C standards process is driven by commercial interests. They're the
people who fund it, just as SAE was funded by industry. They may kick and
scream individually about their favorite innovations but when push comes to
shove they toe the line. Even Microsoft supports ECMAScript, now that it
doesn't have Netscape stamped all over it.
The growing ubiquity of the Web is driving the same process in data-stream
plug-compatibility as mass production drove parts compatibility. Businesses
see their own enlightened self-interest coincide with the availability of
cheap computers, cheap web tools, and cheap browsers, all plug compatible.
The people interested in standardization are not some mythical Soviet
Collective staffed by vodka-pickled and caviar-stuffed Commissars, but
hard-headed business people with their eye on the bottom line.
The reason the Web has taken off is that it promises data-stream ubiquity
and connectivity, freeing businesses from dependence on proprietary
technologies. XML is on the plate of every database company I've talked to.
Because it promises a *useful* format for making their proprietary
technology available to everyone in the world. Major customers are
*demanding* it, even before it's fully standardized, because their
*yearning* for multiple suppliers and second sources is so strong that
they're calling it into existence by sheer willpower.
Standards drive down the cost of labor as well as the cost of supplies.
Cars went from the luxury playthings of the very wealthy to the essentials
of the working class because *voluntary* standards drove down the cost of
producing them to the point that almost everyone could afford them. Nobody
"regulated" bolt sizes. To this day you're perfectly free to create any
size bolt you want. You just can't sell it anywhere, except perhaps to a
bolt collector, or perhaps a nut. ;-)
The quality of a bolt is measured by how closely it adheres to standards.
Cheap bolts vary slightly, as everyone knows. The cheaper the bolt the more
it varies and the harder it is to find wrenches that fit correctly. Right
now we've got a lot of cheap browsers out there, thrown together in haste
and with almost non-existent quality. Real companies aren't happy about it.
Far too much of current Web and data design practice is involved in making
metaphorical wrenches to fit proprietary bolt sizes from every
manufacturer. The business community as a whole doesn't like it. They'd
far prefer a world in which they could depend on things working
interchangeably. And it *will* happen. That's where the money is. Even
Microsoft will be forced to go along, one way or another.
The World Wide Web was founded on standards, very loose ones to be sure.
The old WWW philosophy encourages innovation and experimentation by
ensuring that many different standards can coexist happily, simply by
declaring what standard they support publicly. But if you say you support a
MIME type then you ought to do it. Period. People will laugh at you
otherwise. But that naif early viewpoint is about as antiquated as
hand-tooled leather buggy whips in a commercial world.
We can't afford to support or develop to secret or proprietary standards,
such as currently exist in all the major browsers. Individual designers who
study the tricks of the trade may profit from this lack of standards, but
at the expense of their customers, who have to pay dearly for their
expertise. Individual companies, especially those with monopoly dominance
of the market, may profit from selling figurative razors that fit only
their own razor blades, but at the expense of their customers, who may well
resent it. The "spin" from marketeers is that "innovation" in standards is
a *good* thing, but try selling an "innovative" bolt size to anyone in the
world except, as mentioned before, a nut.
The only reason these elitist differences exist is that the Web hasn't been
really important until now. But that's changing. Just as you can swipe your
credit card through any card reader in the world, because inter-operability
is *very* important to people who deal in *real* money, the Web is going to
become standardized whether we like it or not.
Lee Anne Phillips
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