Go Big Blue, go! Show them who’s the true friend of the little guy.

IBM’s well-publicized new policy for technology standards is an interesting development. The first image it conjured for cynical me is that of an aging Heavy Metal singer ranting against the rudeness of rap lyrics.

Like Charles, I don’t see IBM as an angel in this domain and yet I too think this is a commendable move on their part. Who better to stop a burglar than a (presumably) reformed burglar anyway? I hope this effort will succeed and I am glad to see that my colleague Jim Melton was involved in the discussion facilitated by IBM and that Trond supports it too.

My experience in standards (mostly from back in my HP days) only covers a small portion of IBM’s technology standards involvement of course. But in all instances, both IBM and Microsoft were key players (either through their participation or through their glaring refusal to participate). And within that sample (which does not include OOXML) my impression is that IBM did indeed play more cleanly than Microsoft.

They also mostly lost, while Microsoft mostly won. Whether there is a causality here is possible but not proven. IBM seems to have an ability to loose by winning: because they assign so many people to standards they wear out everybody else and at the end, they get the final document to be the way they want it (through the normal process, just by being relentless). But the specification is by then so over-engineered, so IBM-like in its approach and so late that it’s usually a Pyrrhic victory. Everybody else has moved on and IBM has on their hand something that’s a standard on paper but that only players in the IBM ecosystem implement. Pushing IBM’s CBE event format in WSDM, over-complicating aspects of WSRF like WS-ServiceGroup and butchering the use of SOAP headers in WS-ResourceTransfer to play nice with WebSphere are, in my mind, such examples. They can’t blame Microsoft for those.

Also, nobody forced them to tango with the devil in that whole WS-* saga. What they are saying now is similar in many ways to what Oracle was saying (about openness and fairness) throughout this decennia while Microsoft and IBM were privately defining machine to machine interoperability protocols for the enterprise. And they can’t blame standards for the way Microsoft eventually took advantage of them there, because they *chose* to do this outside of standards. I wish I had been a fly on the whole when this conversation took place:

IBM: We’re going to need a neutral DNS name for all these new XML namespaces. It wouldn’t be right to do it under ibm.com or microsoft.com.
Microsoft: You’re right. Hey, I just registered xmlsoap.org last week with the intent to launch a B2B forum for the detergent industry, but if you want we can use it for our Web services specs.
IBM: Man, that’s perfect. Let me give you twenty bucks to help pay the registration.
Microsoft: No, really, no big deal. It’s on me.
IBM: You’re too cool man.

But here I am, IBM-bashing again while the point of this post is to salute and support their attempt at reform. Bad, bad William.

OK, so now for some (hopefully) constructive remarks and suggestions.

I think commentaries and reports on the news have focused too much on the OOXML/ISO story. Sure it’s probably a big part of the motivation. But how much leverage does IBM really have on ISO? Technology standards is just a portion of what ISO does. And it’s not like ISO has much competition anyway, with its de jure international standing. Organizations like the JCP, DMTF and W3C have a lot more too lose if IBM really gets mad at them.

I think it’s clear that Microsoft is the target, but if ISO reform was the main prize, I don’t think IBM would go at it that way. ISO will only change in response to government pressure. If government influence is a necessary step, isn’t it cheaper and more direct for IBM to hire a couple more lobbyists than to try to rally the blogosphere? I think they really want to impact all standards setting organizations at the same time. If ISO happens to be one of those improved in the process, that’s gravy.

IBM calls its report “standards for standards” (at least that’s the file name). I think (and hope) the double entendre is voluntary. It’s not just a matter a raising the (moral and operational) standards of standards organizations. It should also be an occasion to standardize how they work, to make them more similar to one another.

Follow me for a second here. One of the main problems with many organizations is their opacity. They have boards, task forces, strategic committees, etc. Membership in the organization is stratified, based mostly on how much you are willing to pay. I would guess that most organizations couldn’t make ends meet if all member companies paid the “base membership” fee. They need a dozen companies to pay the “leadership” fee to fund their operations. For these companies to agree to the higher price of participation, they need something in return. They need to have more access than the others. Therefore, some level of access must be denied to the base members (and even more to the non-members, which is why many such organizations make almost no information publicly available).

They are not opaque by accident, they are opaque by design because they need to be in order to be funded. There are two ways to fix this. One is to have fewer organizations, such that the fixed costs of running an organization can be more widely spread. But technology is very specialized and there is value in having organizations that are focused and populated by domain experts. The other way is to drastically reduce the cost of running a standards organization. That’s where standardization of standards organizations comes in. If the development processes, IP policies, bylaws and tools were commonly shared among standards organizations, it would be a lot cheaper to run one.

Today, I can start a new open source project for free on Sourceforge. I can pick one of the clearly-identified open source licenses that have been pre-defined. I can use the usual source control, collaboration and bug reporting tools. Not only is it almost free, my users will know right away how to participate. Why isnt’ it the same for standards organizations? Or only so partially. I know that Kavi is used by many standards organizations. I’ve used their tool both as a DMTF participant and an OASIS participant. And it doesn’t really fit either perfectly because the processes are slightly different. Ballots are conducted differently, attendance rules are different, document visibility rules are different, roles are different, etc.

It sounds superficial, but I am convinced that a more standardized approach to IP policies, organization bylaws and specification development processes would result in big savings that would open the door to much more transparency.

Oh yeah, you’d also have to drop the boondoggle plenary sessions in resorts all over the world. Painful, I know.

Sure there are other costs, such as marketing costs. But fully transparent organizations, by making their products more easily accessible to users, have a much lower need to use traditional marketing to get the word out. In the same way that open source software companies get most of their marketing via their user community. Consistency among standards organizations would also make it a lot easier for small companies to participate since anyone who’s learned the rules once can be effective right away in a new organization.

I want to end with a note of caution directed at IBM. You have responsibilities. I hope you realize that at this point, approximately 20% of all airplane seats are occupied by IBM employees going to or coming back from some standards-related meeting. The airlines are hurting already, you can’t pull out at once. And who will drive all these rental Chevys? Who will eat all the bad sushi in airport food courts and Benihana restaurants?

[UPDATED 2008/10/20: From Tim Bray, another example of IBM loosing by winning in standards: “Unfortunately, that spec [XML 1.1] came with excess baggage, namely changed rules on what constitutes white-space, rammed through by IBM for the convenience of their mainframe customers. In any case, XML 1.1 has been widely ignored”.]

3 Comments

Filed under Conference, Everything, Governance, IBM, ISO, Microsoft, OOXML, Open source, Standards

3 Responses to Go Big Blue, go! Show them who’s the true friend of the little guy.

  1. William,

    We at Kavi think that any move to standardized processes for standards organizations would be blessing, not only for ourselves, but because we see the costs in terms of participation, visibility, and transparency of often wildly different processes between orgs. But we also recognize that standards organizations are highly competitive and use membership rules and organizational processes as one among many means of differentiation. Unless you address this issue at the same time as defining standardized processes, then it may difficult to get consortia to adopt anything developed.

    Chris Gift
    VP of Marketing, Kavi

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