Why do we write standards?

David Megginson david at megginson.com
Wed Nov 10 18:51:25 GMT 1999

"Michael S. Brothers" <Michael.S.Brothers at EMCIns.Com> writes:

> This thread is fascinating. I liken much of what I have heard to the 
> efforts to standardize HDTV, and if you look at that, it's hard to call 
> standardization anything else but good for consumers.

I doubt that anyone on this list would do so.  I'm a big standards
supporter myself, as I thought I'd made clear in my original posting
(I replied privately to each of those who thought I was attacking
standardization, just to keep noise down on the list).  Perhaps my
subject line confused people a little.

To summarize more briefly, I suggested that there are two paths to
standardization (which we all agree is a good thing):

1. The big-bang approach, where we try to do everything at once and
   either fail or succeed spectacularly.

2. The incremental approach, where we do a little at a time without
   getting too far ahead of implementors.

Both of these head for the same place, but I think that (1) has failed
so often during the 1990s (i.e. every W3C attempt at an HTML standard)
that we should think harder about (2).

I also suggested that there's a cost/benefit cutoff where
standardization no longer makes sense (i.e. it's worthwhile
standardizing the sizes of screws, but probably not their colour or
the number sold in each package).  With the second, incremental
approach, we have a better chance of landing close to that cutoff,
while the big bang approach can easily overshoot it, and usually does.

> Things like TCP/IP and HTTP, which became standards, propelled the
> Web. 

An excellent example for my argument -- the Web standardized IP first,
then TCP, then HTTP.  Imagine if they'd tried to do the whole thing at
once twenty or more years ago!

> Standards are not Socialist, nor are they in the best interest of a 
> consortia, rather are the key to true consumer freedom. 

Oops!  I live in a country (Canada) where "Socialist" is not a dirty
word (they brought us universal health care, after all), and had
forgotten the effect that the example might have on U.S. readers.  For
"Socialist", read "top-down", and for "Libertarian", read "bottom-up".
I think that the ideal path to standardization lies somewhere in the

All the best,


David Megginson                 david at megginson.com

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