A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

The Need for New Standards (September 24, 2009)

Recently, I was asked about the need for more standards. The questioner indicated that: "A study by RAND identifies multiple levels of interoperability that are necessary to run the Internet. The study states that, by 2000, fights on communication syntax (e.g., TCP/IP) have been settled, and there appear to be reasonably good solutions to the problem of knowledge syntax, and both solutions are based on open standards. RAND then predicts that semantics will be the next battleground, followed most likely by 'future fights at the service level.'"

Once again, and for seemingly the 10th time in the last few months, I have been asked to revisit a research topic that has been on my backburner for almost a decade. Through the 1980's and 1990's information technology standards and standardization were an active area of research. Over the last decade, research has declined in my "technology" circles, but it has increased in public policy and business circles, particularly in Europe and the Far East. The question led to the following thought about standards and standardization, particularly related to information.

Standards and standardization are dynamic. Both the goal standardization and the process of achieving the goal have evolved over time. The first thing to understand is that standards can be very different kinds of entities. Scholars suggest that standards fall into three broad categories -- measurement, quality, and compatibility. How bright is a light bulb or how intense is an electromagnetic filed -- these standards address how we measure such. From a quality perspective, we might want to know how good a motor oil is at a given temperature, or how pure some drug or food is. Finally, compatibility standards address building a plug that fits in an outlet or a mail note that can be read by a mail program. Below I suggest that there are three discernibly different standardization eras.

The early history of standards setting had a lot to do with professional responsibility, international commerce, and business issues. These early "industrial age" standards were set slowly and carefully, often after a clear need for a standard had emerged. Some of the earliest standards were also demanded by a concern for public safety. Events like the great Baltimore fire in the US led to the elevation of standards for fighting fires. (Despite a "national" response to a fire in Baltimore, the city burned to the ground because the fire companies that responded from as far a way as New York City could not connect to hydrants because of non-standard fittings. Similarly, the oldest US standards organization (ASME) took responsibility for setting standards that helped overcome a growing number of boiler explosions. I refer to these as classic professional responsibility standards. Similarly, related to international commerce, there are two classic early standards setting efforts -- the measurement of electricity (what is an amp, volt, etc.) and tariffs related to international messages -- how do the fees associated with sending an international wire or making an international phone call get divided. Finally, the were early standards set to accommodate business needs -- my personal favorite was standard time required for operation of the railroads.

As time went on, two phenomena occurred. First was the dawn of the information age. As telecommunications, computation, and networking grew to a major force in our world, so did the need to standardize the related operations. We sometimes forget that there were separate mail networks, dozens of competing operating systems, hundreds of different document standards, very distinct networking standards, and even different encoding standards -- i.e. EBCIDIC versus ASCII. While manufacturing era standards setting continued, information technology related standards became a critical and rapidly growing area of standardization. I have long held, but never done the grunt work to prove that IT standards in the period 1980-2010 have outweighed all other standards in terms of the pages produced, the cost to develop, etc. As this occurred, several corollaries emerged -- anticipatory standards versus market dominance standards, consortia versus SDOs, business interests versus engineering interests, etc. As if the need for faster, more complex, more interrelated standards were not enough, the growth of free trade agreements catapulted standards into roles that were minor historically, but became significant in a world where tariffs were frowned upon. All of these events encouraged an evolution from standards as technical solutions to standards as business instruments. (While I think this situation has resulted in standards that are less efficient public goods, I don't know that this is a bad thing. It is simply a reality.)

Most recently, with the emergence of a true functioning global economy, and the nearing of the asymptote of instantaneous communication via email and the world wide web, the era on global instantaneous information transfer has become a reality. What became apparent when this occurred is that we did not have global, or even national, or even industry wide semantics to support that communication. In the "old days" (1960-1990), we had struggled with international standards for commerce -- EDIFACT (Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Trade), directory services (X.500), Abstract Data Types (ASN.1 and BER). All of that disappeared in the heady simple globalization made possible by the WWW. Now, ten years later, we find ourselves lacking common shared semantics for everything from shoe sizes to privacy.

The best model for how this shared semantics is developed is put forward in dribs and drabs by Michael Dertouzos and Tim Berners-Lee. Basically, what they say is that it will happen in a decentralized way and will grow as the need for it becomes apparent. Sometimes the semantics will be developed a priori and sometimes a posteriori. That is, sometimes a group will agree in advance to develop a common shoe size. Sometimes, we will agree not to and someone later will develop a translator. In this sense, a shared ontology or shared semantics will emerge as needed.

The RAND report makes a reasonable case. I am not sure the labels "syntax", "semantics", and "service" help, but the basic premise has some validity. I wonder if we might not be better off in defining different categories of standards that support global commerce. Personally, I find it a little confusing when we equate something like the standard for addressing with a shared semantics for what constitutes a purchase order.