Life would be impossible without standards: you couldn’t build houses or cars or electrical appliances; cooking would be a real challenge, and medicine would be driven back to the era of sympathetic magic. Information technology works better when it’s standards-based: today, you can plug pretty well any computer into pretty well any network jack and there’s a good chance it will Just Work; when a computer is attached to a LAN, you can usually mount any of its disks on any other computer in the LAN without much trouble; you can usually click on a music file and sound will start coming out of your computer speakers. And so on. Does this mean that when a new technology comes over the horizon, the degree to which it’s standardized is going to have a major influence on whether it makes the big time?

The Table · For the “Standardization” predictor, a score of ten would apply to something that had a full-dress ISO committee, and zero to a proprietary offering from a single vendor with poor developer relations.

Winnersscore Losersscore
Unix/C 3 4GL 0
Open Source 0 AI 3
PC Client 0 VRML 9
WWW 5 iTV 0
Java 4 Ada 9

Discussion · There’s a cluster of things scored at 9, a reflection of the fact that no standards process is perfect: Multinational vendors stack ISO votes, and some committees become personality-dominated, and the W3C is a pay-to-play vendor cabal, and so on. But the “Nines” clearly have their legs in the standardization camp.

Unix/C gets 3 because of the Posix work, which while useful has never been central to the story. The WWW has lots of pieces that are standardized, but probably the period of greatest creativity and growth was during the Browser Wars of the mid-Nineties, when standards didn’t have much traction. Java gets less than half the full score because its process is firmly under a single vendor’s thumb, and AI gets some points for Common Lisp.

The PC Client remains perhaps the ultimate standards wasteland; the hardware was by IBM geeks in the bottom right corner of the USA, and the software by Microsoft geeks in the top left. The group of people who decide how PC hardware and software will evolve remains entirely closed.

Open Source should really have a question mark rather than a zero, because it’s entirely oblivious to standards, it just cares about what works.

Conclusion · Another signpost pointing nowhere, here. For this sample of technologies, standardization (or its lack) was not useful as either a positive or negative predictor of success. (Note: Don’t give up hope; some of the candidates will turn out to have predictive mojo.)

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
January 06, 2004
· Technology (77 fragments)
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