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The Standards Democracy

The Standards Democracy

There's been much recent controversy about the role of Microsoft and IBM in the evolution of Web services standards. At a conference I attended not so long ago a pundit talked about the "standard setting duopoly." Several articles have been written about the "undemocratic" practices of WS-I. Are things really that bad?

Here's a somewhat cynical overview of the Web services standards process. MS and IBM pick an area of standardization. They cooperate privately on core concepts. They select a third partner to help them flesh out a draft specification. The partner is chosen according to two criteria: domain expertise that legitimizes the effort (e.g., VeriSign for security) and/or potential ability to create and successfully promote a competing specification (e.g., BEA for orchestration). A draft specification is released to the public. After some time, the draft is contributed to an official standards body such as W3C or OASIS. IBM, MS, and their partner work actively through the standards process to steer the end result. The final specification is released to the world. WS-I, led by IBM and MS, is positioned as the authority to provide a blessing to the specification through inclusion in WS-I profiles, implementation scenarios, and testing suites.

Obviously, IBM and MS have significant influence from start to finish. However, I don't see the process as necessarily undemocratic, even if it is an unusual blend of democracy and business.

In the abstract, democracy is a system in which everyone has equal representation and decisions are made through "one person, one vote." In the real world things aren't that simple. Not every person has a right to vote. Not every person is directly represented in decision making. Clearly, decision making is not done exactly through the principle of one person, one vote. Activists spend time campaigning for what they believe in on the principle of one person/hour, one vote. The bottom line is that those willing to spend time and money working toward a goal get increased decision-making power.

This suggests three things. First, companies that spend a lot of time and money on standards development should be expected to have more influence than companies that don't. Let's face it, Web services would be nowhere close to their current level of evolution without the efforts of MS and IBM. They were instrumental in creating a huge market that both customers and industry players benefit from.

Second, smaller companies should not bet their business plans on their ability to influence the direction of standards. That's reality; any exceptions just prove the rule.

Third, large companies that aren't significantly investing in standards development should stop complaining about not having enough influence. Whoever works the hardest on a standards working group or technical committee often has the most influence over the end result.

I don't buy the argument that the Web services standards process is undemocratic. It certainly isn't based on the principle of one company, one vote, but I think this is a good thing. In most standards committees 20% of the members do more than 80% of the work. They have the commitment to drive the process forward. The 80% are still valuable as reviewers and helpers that bring meaningful perspectives, but they often lack the time or dedication to engage in a serious and consistent manner. Further, the system is relatively open. Any abusers of power can be identified and dealt with.

It's interesting to ask whether IBM and MS are having too much influence on the evolution of Web services standards. There are two separate aspects to this question. Are they playing fair? (In a democracy there are many examples of inappropriate or illegal influencing practices.) Is what they're doing good for customers in the long run? (Are there more optimal standards development processes that we can use?) These are not yes or no questions.

The balance between standards monopoly, anarchy, and the hell that design-by-committee has proved to be is difficult to maintain without strong leadership. With such leadership comes the responsibility to act in the best interest of customers and the industry as a whole. Only time will tell whether the de facto process we have in place for Web services will yield the desired outcome.

Make sure that your preferred vendors follow both the spirit and the letter of the standards. Only customers and developers should have the final vote, over time!

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Simeon Simeonov is CEO of FastIgnite, where he invests in and advises startups. He was chief architect or CTO at companies such as Allaire, Macromedia, Better Advertising and Thing Labs. He blogs at blog.simeonov.com, tweets as @simeons and lives in the Greater Boston area with his wife, son and an adopted dog named Tye.

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