A national direction for international standards

By Rick Jelliffe
December 22, 2008 | Comments: 2

Alex Brown has a good blog item European Standards and Innovation Policy about a presentation he made to European wonks and bigwigs last week. his heads give the flavour: 'Resisting vendor encroachment', 'Effects of economic slowdown', 'Reform / modernisation', and 'IPR reform'.

Governments and legislators have not taken the standards business nearly seriously enough as a generator of efficiency: this is of course because the benefits are often attributed to the resulting industry of the market/bazaar that the standard fosters rather than the standard itself. However there is a gradual realization that, at least for some countries, much more economic advantage is gained from the standards business than the patents business.

If a government wanted a bottom-line metric for knowing whether it took standards seriously, here are some questions I think it should be asking itself:

  • For every international standards body that develops or maintains a standard that is important for the national interest, does the government sponsor either an academic, expert or a bureaucrat?
  • For every international standards committee (or consortium committee) that develops or maintains a standard that is important for the government's own use, does the government sponsor an academic, expert or bureaucrat? For example, all governments have an interest in HTML: how many have even one permanent participant at W3C? How many have someone at even one of the OASIS ODF groups? (This is not extreme: witness the laudable participation of South Africa's Bob Jolliffe at the ODF TC and ISO SC34.)
  • Does the government have an effort whose mission is to pressure vendors into standards compliance?
  • For poor or peripheral countries especially, but not only them, does the government have a policy in place and under active execution to increase its ability to participate cost effectively? For example, electronic meetings, proxy attendance through a friendly neighbor, regular meetings on their side of the world, and so on.

What we often see in the standards world is a tremendous government passivity: scores of policy-making bureaucrats in the capital, yet very little participation where the rubber hits the road.

Many governments outsource their participation to an autonomous or quasi-autonomous non-government organization (QANGO) and fund these. This is of course good, but it does nothing for making sure that the government either as ruler or as itself a stakeholder has its voice and requirements heard. It is also a reflection that participation at these levels is a lifetime job, not a casual fling, and therefore career paths for standards wonks needs to be available.

Many governments may be realizing, too, that their research dollars are not paying off well. This is particularly true of R&D conducted by large corporations: R&D results that does not fit in with corporate agenda are shelved; several time researchers in this position have complained to me about the wasted years of their lives when they found themselves in that situation.

The normal route for R&D seems to be that some researcher thinks of an idea and patents it. Some rich company comes along and funds development and gets licensing rights. Everyone gets rich. It is a cargo cult mentality.

There is an alternative route: a researcher comes up with an idea and puts it in the public domain (or anti-patents it), open source developers bring it up to version 1.0, the technology gets packaged and platformized at an open source consortia (such as Apache etc) by local developers with assistance from government/corporate/academic funds, and then open-standardized to the appropriate extent to allow maximum reach. In this scenario, the standards process is the final capstone making sure that the technology achieves maximum reach and effectiveness.

At the moment, there is much talk of Keynesian pump priming of the economy. If the government is looking for ways of productively occupying the reserve army of the unemployed, then market creation tasks

Now, this is not the abnegation of market forces: instead it is a view of the open research, open development, open source, and open standards communities as a chain that promotes an efficient market for markets.

What do I mean by a market for markets? At the moment almost every marketplace in mass computing is dominated by a single player, whether MS, Google, Adobe or IBM in their hardware or software areas. Occasionally a new technology explodes onto the scene, causing pundits to cry "game-changer", but it rarely does: it just adds a new market which may not ever reduce the size of the pie for the previous markets, which may saturate even if they don't stagnate: they can settle into an unnerving steady state with competition watchdogs and the market dominators chasing each others' tails.

This market for markets needs to be encouraged regardless of the state of individual markets.

Most governments have established agencies for open-source promotion, however in my view they need to be much more comprehensive in their business: the need to be positively encourage open research, open development, open source, and open standards. (They need to be encourage free variants of the same as well, if we take Stallman's "free" as a platform not just a political stance.) It needs to be much bigger than just "How do finesse this monopoly in a positive direction?" or "How do we reduce software costs?" though they certainly may be inputs. It may involve re-aligning the goals and benchmarking of academics, researchers, bureaucrats and industry to reward openness more.

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It's a nice thought, but until vendors stop claiming they have the sole right to make standards for their market, and then use their resources to ensure any previously established standards are rejected until they have sufficient position in the market to dictate, this will not change.

Or an international standards organization rubberstamps a technology with a PAS but does not obligate the vendor to open licensing, thus enabling the vendor to use the standard to maintain a defacto monopoply.

Greed is greed.

Some will think that is Microsoft in the first case, but increasingly, the named champions of open source are the culprits. In the second case, it is the most powerful plugin vendor in the world refusing licenses to third parties who's technology competes with their own plug-in offerings.

So much for lifting the game.

As a result we are seeing another round of patent wars breaking out in the virtual worlds industry, an industry who's Web 2.0 latecomers established themselves by first rejecting any organizations that created IP-unencumbered standards, thus leaving the gates to the fort open as the dirt gathered beneath the doors. When the enemy comes, the gates can't be closed fast enough.

So the lawyers win, and for once, I'm not dismayed. I'll not be unhappy to see them take as much of the Web 2.0 capital as they can get. That industry is now exactly where the word processing industry was in 1992-93 and since it refused to learn from history, it deserves history's hindmost.

And just when my cynicism peaks, something happens to make me realize the good fight is a good fight. A group of Chinese programmers decided that the community that had adopted Google Lively should not be treated as they were when Google shuttered their 3D site and told them the best they could do was video and screen shot the content.


They took screenshots and videos and recreated Lively as NewLively and they did it in a month. How? All the details aren't out but first they applied VRML/X3D. No IP. No lawsuits. If you have the standard and you have the participation agreements, you can sit back and watch your competitors sue each other poor. You just have to be patient with the pace of change.

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