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   Re: Why do we write standards?

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  • From: Lee Anne Phillips <leeanne@leeanne.com>
  • To: XMLDev list <xml-dev@ic.ac.uk>
  • Date: Mon, 08 Nov 1999 14:19:49 -0800

At Monday 11/8/99 03:01 AM -0500, David Megginson wrote:
>Paul Prescod <paul@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 
know it.

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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