Standards Up Against Free Market Again

It's time for the technology sector to back a standards development mechanism.

The free market is a darwinian marvel, built on trial, error and persistent competition and fueled by self-interest, a process at odds with consensus-based standards. Unless a more efficient mechanism can be developed, the result will be growing chaos in the marketplace as standards bodies fall further and further behind the exponential growth of technology.

Take the dilemma faced by Paul Cotton, chairman of the World Wide Web Consortiums XQuery Working Group. Its a prime example of the dilemma faced more and more often by standards bodies—and, indeed, by the entire technology sector—as a result of time compression in a market economy.

In the case of XQuery, the long- awaited query standard for XML, Cotton told eWeek that users are "inevitably split down the middle" when asked if theyd rather have an incomplete standard quickly or wait and get a standard that includes updating capabilities (see story, Page 45). "Half wanted a standard done as quickly as possible," Cotton said. "The other half absolutely had to have the update facility."

Not surprisingly, the private sector smells opportunity in the W3Cs siding with the "we want it yesterday" crowd. Reporter Charles Babcock lists a bunch of companies that have jumped in early with products that can update XML pages efficiently.

Thats great if your enterprise is desperate enough—and rich enough—to gamble on a pre-standard technology. But even the most adventuresome IT professionals have been burned at least once by promises that a product purchased now will be backward-compatible with a standard to be released later (remember the years-long 56K-bps modem debacle?), so its understandable if theyre twice shy—if not downright cynical—about tossing dice with their companies e-business infrastructures.

Nor does the pursuit of self-interest—often the next 10-Q statement—make the private sector particularly good at divining the long-term best interests of customers. Cottons company—hes the program manager for XML standards at Microsoft—is a prime example. While Microsoft aggressively participates in standards development, it also has a habit of jumping in early with its own standard. Sometimes, it simply loses patience with a slow-moving standards body. Sometimes, it smells an immediate demand it cant resist. Sometimes—and, some would argue, more cynically—it finds the direction a standards body is taking isnt in Microsofts competitive interest, so it wields its market clout to impose a de facto standard to its own liking.

Its time the technology sector and IT professionals alike made a firm commitment to a standards development mechanism with some teeth. Neither vendors nor customers stand to gain from the current market chaos.

Send me your standard—or nonstandard—response at [email protected]