I’ve written before that there is something about s-words that make them difficult to use in conversation because everyone has different meanings: semantics is one, standards is another. I have previously argued against various views of standards, for example Microsoft’s Mike Champion’s Donut Line method of Standardization (informality), or ODF’s requirements creep for what makes an open standard (though I liked Sun’s.
This time the merry-go-round goes back to Mike Champion: on his blog in January.
I said Standards are a library of stable technological possibilities. Regular readers won’t be surprised: plurality is good. (If you attended WWW7 in Brisbane about a decade ago, you may have seen me debating -badly- against an MS rep, with me supporting the idea that XML needed to support an general infrastructure for binding resources to XML data in a layered approach to promote plurality while the MS guy thought just a big fat XML Schemas would be enough. Same deal.)
Mike replied I guess I have a different perspective: Standards are technological REALITIES that one can use with some confidence that they are supported by at least a critical mass of some audience. I have two gripes with this idea. First, it unsoundly enthrones market success as the benchmark: but it is sometimes useful to have standards that are only relevant to a small sector of industry. The recent XML-DEV thread on the need for speed in parsing is an example, it seems to me, of a nasty side to standards: people who say “My need is important, your need is not” have no business in standards; whether I concur that your reasons for a standard are sound, if it doesn’t affect me I should butt out. Second, it does not seem far from the first-come first-serve, exclusionary view of standards as if they are a kind of monopoly grant, like a patent. (This is the latest scam, I see.)
What do ISO say? Their website is a good place to start.
Here are the first sentences of the ISO section “Hallmarks of the ISO Brand”:
- Every participating ISO member institute (full members) has the right to take part in the development of any standard which it judges to be important to its country’s economy.
- ISO standards are voluntary.
- ISO develops only those standards for which there is a market requirement.
- Although ISO standards are voluntary, the fact that they are developed in response to market demand, and are based on consensus among the interested parties, ensures widespread applicability of the standards.
- ISO standards are technical agreements which provide the framework for compatible technology worldwide.
Now I don’t see anything there to connect ISO standards either with critical masses or monopoly grants: the market requirement aspect is the key: is there some group that (thinks) it needs it?
There is an especially interesting line concerning committee member’s obligations: The experts participate as national delegations, chosen by the ISO national member institute for the country concerned. These delegations are required to represent not just the views of the organizations in which their participating experts work, but of other stakeholders too. According to ISO rules, the member institute is expected to take account of the views of the range of parties interested in the standard under development and to present a consolidated, national consensus position to the technical committee. I see this as condemning the sectarian “My need is important; your need is not” approach and explicitly demanding an openness toward plurality. (Which is not to say that every crackpot scheme that comes along must be endorsed, of course.)
ISO standards are essentially technical agreements that reflect some market requirement, made by committees which are discouraged from sectional interest. The ISO process is geared to win-win, not win-lose: to encouraging agreement where possible but allowing separate technologies where agreement is not possible. And ISO clearly takes the view that regulation is not their business. That is why I think moving away from the view of ISO standards as a library of technical solutions will be unsatisfactory for those who attempt it.
(While we are on this page, I note that the page speaks of ISO standards as creating a level playing field to satisfy trade agreements, but it does this by distinguishing ISO standards from regional or national standards. Compare this with the recent claims that the trade agreements require no overlapping standards and encourage non-pluralism.)