Let's just lie back and enjoy it!

By Rick Jelliffe
September 25, 2008 | Comments: 8

What should we do when some large FUDdy commercial Colossus whose motives we don't necessarily have confidence in wants to do something we pretty much had wished they would do? My recommendation: just lie back and enjoy it honey!

This is what I thought of Microsoft with OOXML and I have the same reaction to IBM's recent publication of its I.T. Standards Policies.

I have had quite a few emails asking me to write a blog defending ISO, irritated that IBM's moves are grandstanding, transparent marketing, last refuge of soundrels, a monopolist complaining about lack of openness, trying to entrench a world-view based on the discredited allegations of the OOXML process, and so on. And, truth be told, of course there is an aspect of rump Plan C about IBM's efforts here.

But I really don't think the Plan C aspects will have legs even in the medium term: people see through that, which leaves us free to consider the good effects that this can have. Within hours of releasing the press release, IBM's Bob Sutor was busily back-pedaling that Notwithstanding the various sexy headlines I've seen today, leaving a standards group would be a last resort.


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So what positives can we hope for?

For a start, you cannot nowadays find a supporter for the ISO fast-track procedures. If IBM's machinations helps alter these, that would be good.

If it prompts more governments to get serious about participation in all kinds of standards bodies, that would be good.

If it prompts more technical experts to get involved in any level, that would be good.

If it promotes FOSS people to get more serious about standards, so that inter-project requirements as well as developer energy and corporate agendas drive open source projects, that would be good.

Clearly there is a group of people startled by the discovery that the voluntary standards regime can be unsatisfactory for use for setting mandatory exclusive technologies for all sorts of reasons. If they stop blaming the standards organizations for being oranges (and claiming to be oranges) rather than the desired apples of their dreams, and instead concentrate on the positive step of trying to get bodies or procedures that are more satisfactory, why wouldn't that be a good thing too?

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There are lots of different angles and issues. For example, the issue of participation. Do we want wise men with grey beards? Do we want government officials? Is it enough to say that a process is potentially open or do we actually need to check who participated?

For example, at OASIS there are no limits AFAIK on the membership of committees: I've reported before that the ODF TC had for the most of the last year a rollcall dominated by two particular vendors. Should there be rules which prevent vendors from having more than one vote? Should there be rules on associates, and if so how on earth could they be enforced? Should there be rules based on market sectors, so that in any committee vendors and users cannot exercise more than 50% of the vote? That might force vendors to go out and recruit users more, which would be a good thing...or is that then just "stacking"?

And what about second tier organizations? Organizations such as ISO have, as their voting members, not individuals and not corporations and not countries, but national bodies: each of which has a different setup. The NB of China is a government agency, of course, and you can have certain expectations about the attitude to public participation. Other NBs are NGOs. Some charge fees, some (like Australia) do not.

I have never paid a cent in fees for any standards body I have ever participated in with the exception of when I worked for Academia Sinica as their representative at W3C: they paid the W3C fees. And I think that is the way things should be in more countries; Bob Sutor is factually wrong that participation in ISO necessarily involves more fees than participation in other bodies (any fees vary according to the policies of the National Bodies and the particular projects), but right in raising it as an issue.

Many national and international standards bodies for years funded or subsidized themselves as publishing houses. For the last 15 years they have all been having a debate about the role of this model in the age of WWW access and distribution, and many have moved over to a model where they are happy if non-revenue generating standards get farmed out to the interested consortia and fast-tracked if necessary.

But there are other models. In New Zealand, I believe, the standards body negotiates with government for grants to participate, so there is a direct tie in between standards participation and government policy. (In Australia, Standards Australia also applies for grants on specific requirements: I was able to participated in the OOXML BRM because of a grant for travel expenses, for example.)

If citizens lobby public policy makers to realize the central importance of a viable standards organizations in the modern economy, I don't see any downside. Many governments have ignored the area for far too long, and they need to stop focussing on stimulating industry by privatising rights to use things (e.g. patents) and more opening up the rights so that the public can use them (e.g. standards —in the larger sense of RAND-z, QA-ed, open specifications— and orphan technologies).

And one of the challenges for standards bodies is how to get the FOSS community involved. I have repeatedly mentioned why I think the royalty-bearing MPEG work at ISO is nowadays counter-productive: if this IBM effort promotes people to look at all the important standards that are not currently standardized, then we should welcome that: a standards home for Ogg Vorbis, ZIP, etc. would be good.

Now obviously I have particular views about the form that standards need to take: my blog item yesterday The Cathedral and the Bazaar and Standards gives some. Openness needs to exclude NIH (Not Invented Here) notions, but just as much as openness needs to exclude domination by single players it needs to exclude cartelization (see my Is our idea of Open Standards good enough: verifiable vendor neutrality.)

Now my proclivities are that standards need to stimulate the bazaar and the market. They have a particular role in serving niche requirements where the big boys have no interest, and in fact, as a song says, we are all minorities if you look far enough.

But the more that governments want to mandate unique standards outside the areas of health, safety and the environment, the more that the voluntary standards process as it currently stands is suspect. Now I think that this applies even more to consortia which allow vendors or vendor employees multiple votes, or consortia where all detailed work is done by such dominable committees and which only have up-down acceptance votes post-committee.

If this effort prompts national and international standards bodies to liaise with the appropriate competition commissions, that would be a good thing. (I think the ISO/IEC Secretariats need to take the lead in this consultation, for example, and not solicit information rather than awaiting NB pushes.)

While it is very important to have good developer buy-in and commitment at the committee stage, it is also important to have adequate review. This review is a real strength of the ISO and W3C systems, for example. OASIS and many other consortia need more attention to systematic or scheduled review and defect fixing.

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So all up I am not at perturbed by IBM's latest caper: to the contrary I would be delighted if it goes well and bears fruit, especially more participation. This is because I really don't see governments replacing their national standards bodies, nor the national standards bodies starting another organization apart from ISO to do what ISO already does. But extra impetus for improvements to the Directives would be wonderful and quite achievable I think, if there is will. And I can see scope for some International Open Standards Organization, with the aim of making it easier to standardize (at some level) FOSS projects: perhaps a super OASIS.

What we don't want is a Global Vendors' Conspiracy.

More and more nations are including definitions of open source and open standards into legislation, and so it does not seem strange that there would be desire to rate organizations: though I expect that this would rapidly prove wrong-headed (throw out ISO beach flag standards because of OOXML? I don't think so...) and instead a more realistic regime of rating actual standards and individual committee processes for openness would need to be implemented. And I think it would die at that stage, because large companies want processes they can set the agenda for: they want standards that make things better for them, not standards that shift things sideways or backwards. The more that developers set the agenda in committees, rather than responding to user requirements, the less credible the claims for openness of the technology should be.

So, maybe I am overly optimistic and incrementalist, but I recommend lying back and enjoying it!


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8 Comments

Rick,

The phrase you use as the caption is an old, derogative and tasteless, "advice" to women about what to do when raped.

So this title suggests to us that you think IBM rapes the standards communities.

Could you give us a good reason, eg, some evidence, why we should think IBM "rapes" the standards community?

You give examples which completely exclude Ecma and MS OOXML. However, these were the direct cause of IBM doing this consultation and declaration.

Leaving out the context of IBM's work and only refering to, eg, OASIS, might instill the idea that these steps were taken because of recent standards mishaps by these organization, that is OASIS. What are your reasons to think so?

So could you give your views on IBMs declaration INCLUDING the context in which it was drawn up?

Winter

Winter: How dare you attempt to use rape victims' pain in argument like that. You really are beyond contempt.

My point was indeed fairly opposite of the one you claim. We should welcome it when people want to do something good that we have been asking for.

Despite the dangerous title (It seems like you've been "Lipstick on a Pig'ed" with it both here and on Andy's site), this a great post. We can all agree that the system needs some improvement, but I'm a little more worried about a few things than you are:

1. If the initial stories are any indicator, I don't think there is much understanding of IBM's self interest outside the smaller standards community. This is particularly dangerous given that IBM and its Secret Group of 70 seem to want to drag government electeds and bureaucrats into the process of regulating standards bodies.

2. In your post, you write "But the more that governments want to mandate unique standards outside the areas of health, safety and the environment, the more that the voluntary standards process as it currently stands is suspect." However, you do not make the point that IBM (and Sun to a lesser extent) have been lobbying actively to get governments to mandate standards. This is NOT a result of governments just deciding to start mandating, IBM has been TELLING them to start mandating as part of their business strategy. I outlined this at the ACT Blog.

Given that IBM has interests that are not fully aligned with the rest of the industry, let alone governments, or the user community...can we really just "lie back?" If we do, we may just allow IBM to use this as justification to rejigger the rules of key standards bodies to ensure its dominance for the next 50 years.

Winter shows the usual Groklaw style of discussion.


Mark: Thanks, that is an interesting article.

All the largest companies use open source as pixie dust around their proprietary core: Google, IBM, Microsoft increasingly. In order to entice any of them to engage in the virtuous cycle of standards work they need to have some positive benefit in mind, and that benefit may indeed be to wedge the market.

The analogy I have used before is that we have to be like bear trappers: when the bear walks into the trap, they have to do so voluntarily because of some honey, but when they are inside you don't throw them out of the cage merely because you decide they are too smelly for you. If we want to wait around until Microsoft and IBM are pure as the driven snow, or until there are no SNAFUs or idiots involved anywhere, then we will wait forever. Participation in standards work is not predicated on trust. Indeed, in standardization you perhaps really want to get arch competitors agreeing more than back-scratching cartel-buddies.

(Readers: Mark works for a patent-positive PR/lobbyist group with Microsoft and Oracle among its members, not that that makes the analysis wrong, just presumably part of a campaign. It must be tough finding any companies that still make a living from selling software rather than services, with a couple of notable exceptions!)

Mark #2: On your point about whether we can afford to lie back, we can take comfort in something.

Whenever legislators or bosses mandate standards that are not up to the job, the projects fail at acceptance time or before and it all dies a death. (Len's recent comments on the old CALS standards probably are in my mind here!) So while I am generally not for mandating standards on the grounds that a thriving ecosystem/bazaar/market is better than dictated results, I think we needn't get too carried away in FUD that mandated single standards are necessarily disaster.

I had started to enjoy the peace and quiet of post OOXML, but was rudely brought back into the world of late night blog reading, at the expense of the family by the toy throwing incident at the IBM pram.

It made me laugh when searching for "IBM standards yale secret" to see if I could find out the anointed few (invitation only, influential figures - the phrase of the moment) that were deemed worthy of the type of "openness" that IBM is willing to pay for.

One of Bob Sutors old posts came up:

http://www.sutor.com/newsite/blog-open/?p=1772

Here he stitches himself up a treat:

"I repeat: All this information must be made public and those running the processes must be accountable to each other, their fellow citizens, and the various standards organizations and committees in which they participate.

This is transparency, this is good community behavior, this is openness. Anything else is a sham and an embarrassing scandal in the making.

All this information will be public eventually. It’s best to just do the right thing now."

Anyone seen a better petard?

IBM go even better than this, as in the new IBM standards era, we don't even know who is running the processes, other than IBM. Difficult to make someone accountable when the membership itself is a secret. Or maybe IBM will volunteer to speak on behalf of it's silent partners.

Well, all will probably be revealed in November and the truth will be far more mundane than the speculation. I hope.

Gareth

Gareth: Yes, it is indeed surprising that such a champion of openness should be so indifferent to it.

If I were a cynic, I might note that there is a long-established trick, in the standards world, that if you can establish the scope of a project (the problems it is supposed to solve, the problems it is not supposed to solve, the basic implementation parameters) then that will largely select the participants and steer the outcome. XSD is a clear example of this: the basic problems it had at the end were the same ones that were raised in the first week of public comment: the basics had been decided before the public participation. The fruit does not fall far from the tree.

You may remember the strange meeting that was held downstairs in Geneva from the BRM: this was a conference with the usual suspects on open standards which was held under "Chatham House" rules, which is a diplomatic convention where no information is leaked in order to allow frank speaking. You could hardly imagine a less transparent system, nor a more appropriate rule to allow hysteria and misrepresentation.

But, ultimately, so what? The more that they give lip service to standards, the more that pulling out or establishing their own proxies will be seen as hypocritical and self-serving. It is a virtuous cycle: if you demand your opponents submit to international standards then you must yourself be willing to submit. If after demanding submission, you loudly pull out, the shallowness and lack of commitment of your original participation will be seen.

Having their cake and eating it too -- making noises about participation but then complaining about the process whenever it goes a different way than their corporate agenda -- is tempting but a losing proposition. If they get improvements to the system, their objections disappear, if they don't, they get exposed as exagerators of the role of standards bodies and the possibilities for change at the international level.

So we should get behind any positive things, irregardless of their motives. Making technical decisions based on grandiose long-term strategies is not the way forward, I think: we just need to make sure that this year's choices take us closer to our goals, and not worry about balances of power and so on too much. The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they assume there is only one conspiracy going on, whereas standards is a complex negotiation between dozens or hundreds of different agendas, seeking whatever agreements are equitable.

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