Why Large Standards Organizations Fail

Lately, I’ve seen a couple of attempts of large standards organizations to migrate in some way or another to the more community-driven specification creation model demonstrated by the FOAF and GeoRSS communities. I think that these communities are a great model of the right way to create application-level specifications, but I don’t think that large standards orgs are going to find it possible to migrate to this framework without a very significant change in the way they look at what they do.

Community based standard creation offers a great number of benefits. Without a large corporation behind the specification, it seems to have been possible to create an environment where the ’survival of the fittest’ in terms of inclusion into the spec is much more likely than in a case where large competing interests don’t have any impetuous to create a small specification. This environment is likely created by the specification creators being implementors. Implementors are more likely to head to the simplest thing that could possibly work. Implementors care about how difficult a spec is to understand, because if they don’t understand it, they can’t implement it.

Large corporations don’t have the same feeling. A representative of Sun, IBM, HP is going to try to solve a lot more cases than he or she will personally implement: The reason for this is that in those large organizations, a specification will be used by dozens or hundreds of different implementors, to solve different goals. This is great when the result is a specification which is well suited to all of those needs — however, typically what happens is that a specification grows in complexity with each additional use case. You end up with a large specification which can be used to solve lots of different needs, but doesn’t solve any of them perfectly, and is difficult to implement — or at least to understand how to implement — due to the added complexity of addressing dozens, or more, of use cases rather than a single simple case. The single representative of a large organization is going to be speaking as a representative of far more people than a single use case.

There are certain specifications which are better built this way. The fact that so many people have spent time thinking about XML has resulted in a format which is extremely flexible, and can play the roles needed in thousands of applications. The specification has been around long enough that tools which understand XML are very mature, and this maturity makes XML a useful tool for information exchange among a wide number of tools. I think an implementor of a new toolkit to work with XML would, however, argue that XML is not easy at all: there are many edge cases which need to be handled, and the fact that these tools are already created hides these complexities.

Application-level specifications are not well-suited for large-organization standardization. Application-level specifications should start by addressing the simplest thing that could possibly work. Large organizations don’t have an interest in creating the simplest thing that could possibly work. Starting small and expanding into something larger is a pathway that large standards bodies have thus far successfully demonstrated the ability to do.

It is possible that someplace like the W3C could succeed at this, but it would require changing the way these standards are generally created.

* Open communication. Even in the Geospatial Incubator group, the primary communications channels are currently closed: private mailing lists, private telecons, and private wikis. Implementors have not been invited to participate. This is a large mistake: standards for application use need to involve applications. There are a number of applications developers who would love to take part in standards development who have not yet been afforded the opportunity to.
* Changing development strategy. Rather than spending months going through 17 calls for comments, last calls, etc. to get to a recommendation, get something out as quickly as possible and iterate on it.
* Require that a specification have implementations before it is complete. I’m still not aware of a good, W3C released or endorsed XML parser. No tools to convert some existing data format to any kind of XML. No way to test how the specification is supposed to work and make sure you’ve got it right. Conformance testing is a good part of this, but is not all of it. When working on RSS 1.1, we had an implementation for Wordpress and support for XML::Parser patched in Perl before we even released the spec. We included testing, Relax-NG testing, and a validator service. All of these and more were important to the rapid (though limited) uptake the technology received: no one had any serious questions about RSS 1.1 that couldn’t be answered by reading through the example implementations.

These changes, however, are antithetical to the way that large standards organizations work. In general, grassroots implementors aren’t part of large organizations which can afford to be members of these standards organizations, or when they are, they aren’t often implementing these standards as part of their work for that company. Since large standards organizations depend on large corporations memberships for revenue, choosing to allow small-potatoes implementors participate means that they give up possible revenue stream. When this happens, the larger customers start wondering what the benefit there is to being a member: if anyone can just come in on their own time and influence the standard, what is the benefit to pay large sums of money to participate?

Part of the reason for this shift is that organizational costs for creating standards have been headed downward. For $500/yr, or less, I can get my own webserver with lots of bandwidth. I can run mailing lists, Web pages, Wikis, IRC channels. With VoIP setups, I can achieve relatively cheap realtime communication, and the grassroots standards developers typically have more of a preference for somewhat real-time online communication anyway. When I can obtain all the organizational materials I need to create a standard for less than $500/yr, what purpose does a $50,000 a year membership to a standards org get me?

Typically, the answer is “Access to the right people”. Getting the members of the RDF developer community in the same place for discussions is not easy, and doing it with telecons does take work. However, as the grassroots development practices mature, they are demonstrating the ability to create specifications in ways that do not work the same way as XML was developed. Good specifications limit the need for specification ‘marketing’ — if a spec does what you need, you’ll find it, and you’ll use it, if it’s good.

So, with organizational costs heading downwards far enough that people are willing to contribute the resources out of pocket, with developers tending to group together without the need of an organizational support, and with the resulting specification having the support of application implementors, what do standards organizations offer to application specification development?

I think you can guess what I think the answer to that is.

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