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This article addresses the question of how to best develop standards for
the information technology industry. While it may be possible to generalize our
conclusions for other
industry groups, the focus here is on the issues faced
by the information technology industries.
Marvin Minski once said ``Anything that you hear about computers
and AI should be ignored, because we're in the Dark Ages. We're in
the thousand years between no technology and all technology. . . ''[6, p 104,]
While information technology is probably in
somewhat better shape than Minski suggests is the case for AI, it is
true that we are in a period of very rapid, and often unpredictable change.
Bibliophiles will be familiar with the term
``incunabul'' which is used to refer to books produced between 1450 and 1500.
The term more generally refers to any art or industry in the early stages of
development. Information technology is currently in the early stages of
development -- in its period of incunabula. Developments are both rapid and pervasive.
There are many indications of the rate and extent of change.
- The growth of the Internet provides one kind of measure.
While precise figures are hard to come by, it is clear that the Internet now provides
access to well over 30 million users and that there was a period in the early
1990's when the network was growing at more than 10 percent
- In 1995, for the first time the sales of
PC's exceeded the sales of new televisions
- Looking at the revolution in how documents are processed,
Spring and Campbell suggest
that over the last 50 years, information
technology has brought about orders of magnitude changes in
storage, processing and transmission.
- Over the last 50 years, the increased processing and storage power of
computers has been measured in terms of Moore's law, i.e. for a given number of
dollars, there has been a doubling of power every 18 months. How long this trend
will continue is a matter of some debate, but even if it ends in the next few years,
we have experienced an unprecedented revolution to this point. (Consider any one of
the comparisons to other items that are made, e.g. development of automobiles under
the same rules would give us cars traveling at the speed of light that cost a few
All of these are indicators of a fundamental shift. As Lucky and
out, we appear to be moving from an
economy based on physical commodities to an economy based on
information. A number of authors have addressed this
transformation as it pertains to reengineering or new
In this milieu, a number of organizations are setting
standards for information technology. As has been the case over the years,
these standards are one of the
important factors in bringing about stability in the technology.
There have been some estimates that more than 50% of
all the new standards pages being developed these days are
related to information
technology. This number is of great interest in that the information technology
industries represent only a small portion of the industries engaged in setting
standards. (If all industries set standards at the same rate, one might expect
fewer than 1% of standards pages to relate to
Another measure of the importance of this effort are the estimates
of the costs of developing these standards. Spring and Weiss make a
conservative estimate of the cost of only one of the ethernet standards at
about $10,000,000. Some have suggested that the OSI effort, which many now
feel is doomed to obsolescence before implementation, may have cost the
governments and corporations that contributed to its development more than a
half a billion dollars. While these estimates have focused on
standards developed in the traditional standards development
organizations, the fact that the most significant
cost factor is the contribution of employee time suggests that these cost
estimates are likely to hold for standards developed in other kinds of
environments as well.
We are inventing the information technology future at a rapid pace, and
the extent of invention is vast. In this environment, lots of things are
in a state of flux. The challenge to develop a National Information
Infrastructure has been the latest addition to this mix,
and like it or not, it does change the focus of technology development
from one that is very much market driven to one that may be more
influenced by public policy.
During the last quarter of 1994, Tony Rutkowski of the
Internet Society and Steve Oksala
of Unisys began a
discussion about the criteria for recognizing organizations to be involved
in this standards development process -- specifically, as a part of the
Information Infrastructure Standards Panel effort set up by ANSI.
This discussion has practical, structural and legal ramifications
at the national and international levels.
In this article the discussion is expanded and carried forward with an eye to asking
what needs to be done to make things better.
Each of the authors has been involved in the development,
management, and/or study
The article endeavors to take a first hand and dispassionate view of the
developments over the last decade and asks how information technology
standards might best be set over the coming decade.
To set the stage, we begin with a few important assumptions about our thinking:
- Standards are critical, methodology is a means to an end.
- This is not to
say that the methods of setting standards
are unimportant. As is indicated below, the people who develop a standard
and the process by which
it is developed influence what emerges. It is to say that once a standard is
accepted, the method by which it emerged is less important than the fact that
an accepted standard exist. For example, if we
accept that TCP/IP, Microsoft Windows, SQL, and Ethernet are all standards at
some level, they are not more or less standards because of
the radically different methodologies by which they were developed. A
corallary to this assumption is that
great, mediocre, or lousy standards can emerge from any of the processes.
- Standards shape the marketplace.
When a standard is accepted, the marketplace is affected in some significant
ways. On the downside, inertia and stagnation can set in. On the upside,
there is increased competition in value added products that conform to the
standard and increase network externality. While the
arguments pro and con are too complex to argue in general, it may be safe to
say the ideal standard stabilizes the market and allows for a variety of
interoperable products that reduce costs through competition.
- A good standard is invisible.
- In a sense, a perfect standard is absolute.
To the extent that we have a
choice about standards, they are not perfect. When there is no choice, we
tend to forget that the standard actually exists. For example,
there are many different sizes of paper, but the overwhelming tendency in the
the notable exception of the legal profession, is to view standard business paper size
as 8.5x11 -- in Europe it is A4. We don't have to specify the filing cabinet capacity, or the file
folder size, or the binder size, or the dimensions of the three hole punch,
or the copier, fax, or laser printer size. All of these choices assume a
standard size for business correspondence. Similarly, normal electrical
devices for the home run on a standard frequency. (we can plug a
light, PC, or table saw into any outlet in the house.) We don't have to check
when purchasing the device to make sure. On the other hand, people are
sometimes surprised that the PostScript file they just printed on their local
office printer does not print across town at another office that uses the
exact same hardware configured for HPGL. So long as we have to ask long and
complicated questions about what standards a given device is compliant with,
the standards are not invisible, and one might argue they are not standards.
- Standards are not ends but means.
While many could point to situations in which standards were developed because
the members of the committee wanted a standard, most would agree that the goal
of standardization is more than a document.
A standard serves as a mechanism to
achieve economic and or public good goals. The economic
goals, traditional to the US standards setting process, have to do with network
externality, economy of scale, and interchangability. The public
less prominent but none the less
visible in the US standards setting process, have to do governmental efforts
to assure the public access, public safety, and public welfare.
Historically, these are reflected in safety standards, but they are also
prominent in access to communications. Thus, our assumption here
is that while there is a history of standards development as an end in itself,
the rational -- professional, corporate, and national -- view is that standards are
means to an end.
- IT Standards are tied to competitive issues.
- Most simply,
when technical standards are developed, it is sometimes the case (in the IT
industry this may be the case frequently) that the choices are more or less
equivalent at a technical level. In this situation, the choice of one
approach over another can provide a clear competitive advantage to the
organization that has the largest stake, investment, and lead in the
particular approach. This may have significant implications when the
competing industries are tied to particular nations and the standard being
accepted is one that will affect the international market. (A good example of
this is the HDTV standards. While most would now agree that
the US position advocating a digital standard was technically
correct, the controversy was as much motivated by international
competition as it was by technical issues.)
- Standards are developed within a cultural milieu.
- While several of the
assumptions above focus on the fact that standards are a means to an end, it is
equally clear that the means is far from value free. Standards are developed
by a community that has a set of values and a particular perspective on
information technology. For example, if asked to guess the average age of
committee members on an X3, IEEE, and IETF working group, few would guess that
the X3 committee members would be younger than the IETF members. If asked
about the average length of hair or the political affiliation many would
suggest that the members of these organizations are likely to have differences.
These differences might or might not be real in any given situation.
Standards are developed by people and oftentimes the
people developing the standard have a long involvement in their particular
field and the paradigm of the field may work as a kind of selection
On the pages that follow, the opening discussion between Tony Rutkowski and
Steve Oksala has been summarized. (The actual mail notes are contained in Appendix A.)
Next: The Opening Statements
Up: The Structure of IT
Previous: The Structure of IT
Mon Nov 27 18:45:46 EST 1995