The Software, Standards and Society in 2020 Series: 5. How Standards Matter In People's Everyday Lives

While it is possible to argue that standards matter, it is not easy to explain it in plain terms. We could quote Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who says:

“Standards like HTML, XML, Style Sheets (CSS), to name a few — have fueled billion-dollar industries and connected people like never before”.

In fact, software standards are the reason why we have the World Wide Web. Increasingly, software standards actually weave a social web, as well. But this process is not at all inevitable and should not be taken for granted (which is why standards strategy is the way I make a living). Things could easily go another way – towards isolation, full pay-per-view commercialization of all content and monopolies – essentially it would become the rich man's web.

Standards are what links the Internet together. The future strength of applications like Facebook, LinkedIn or YouTube is in the hands of standards setting professionals – like you and me. By endorsing this or that widget or application, we contribute to picking winning standards. So, next time you opt not to register your name with Open ID, which would have enabled you to use one password across sites like Yahoo, Google, etc., you are making a standards choice. Most people do not think of it that way, but you are actually spinning the global wheel by doing or not doing certain things on the Web.

In fact, ideally, end users should always participate, even more directly. Local officials, small business owners, lawyers, software developers and consultants should go to standards meetings now and then, even if the meetings are in Hawaii (you could also surf in the water for a day, not just on the web). Wide participation gives a better standards because more ideas are on the table and more experience is brought to bear. Wide adoption is only possible if all impacted stakeholders know about the standard, believe in it, and promote it.

The reality is, even though standard setting tends to take years and involves patiently sitting out day and week-long meetings to discuss small details, standards themselves can actually be quite simple. Agreeing on them is the difficult part. This is why common wisdom has it only experts should go: bureaucrats, engineers, low level technical policy makers and such like. Nothing could be further from what we need.

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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile

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