talk standards: We need to innovate standards but not standardize innovation.


This blog is a summary of my discussion at the talkstandards forum last week in Brussels. I see both the talk and the event as the continuation of a debate – both online and offline.

After this talk, in an interview with talkstandards, I asked: ‘Can you standardise a painting?’ i.e. there must also be a place for innovation and by extension standards must seek balance as a communication medium and as an innovation medium.

Over the next few years, this debate will be increasingly relevant because of the following reasons (among others)

a) The recession which will make sweeping changes to the ecosystem

b) New paradigms like Cloud computing which change the emphasis of Open systems

c) There is an ongoing debate about standards, open source, Net neutrality, IPR and other issues in the EU and also in the USA. As I discuss below, we need to take a pragmatic view forward


We need to innovate standards but not standardize innovation. We also need to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ standards

If we take a step back and address the problem from first principles,

What is the goal of open standards?

Consumers: Things work with each other (think power adapters at the simplest level)

Vendors: It is to ensure that a market develops for a specific technology

Break down the words Open and Standard

Open – ten meanings of Open(which means there is no ‘one’ meaning)

1) Open source

2) Open standards

3) Open APIs i.e. Application Programming Interfaces – for instance access to Location APIs

4) Open access (freedom to contact anyone on the network),

5) Open choice of enablers (for example – the ability to choose your billing system),

6) Data portability (ownership of your data)

7) The ability to access any application (i.e. not just the provider’s application) a.k.a the classic ‘Walled Garden’ debate – On deck/ Off deck

8) ‘Open’ in relationship to the Cloud

9) Impact on developers and a shift in value to the edge of the network

10) Low barriers of entry for third party developers

Some contradictions of ‘Open’

a) Facebook more open or myspace more open – facebook original open API. My space – you can contact anyone

b) Opera – Open standards – not open source

c) Most operators are opening up(not having portals) but banning skype

d) Skype is proprietary technology(not open source) but wants networks to open up(wants open access)

e) Android uses Open source but (still unlike the iPhone) forces you to use Operator billing

f) The iPhone is a closed system but still favoured by developers since barriers to entry for third party developers are greater.iPhone has led to the greatest innovations in the mobile value chain in the last few years

g) Open source has liberal licensing models but strict governance models

h) Competitive positioning: Eclipse v.s. Sun

i) What happens when Oracle acquires Sun(which acquired MySQL – an open source database)


Standards argument is accepted for consumer electronics: for fax machines

It also applies to lower level web based protocols like http

We need to distinguish between standards for communication systems and standards for application systems

For instance, we all agree that http should be a common paradigm else the Web would not have taken off

However, this gets more complex with things like HTML5(which include offline browsing)

Presumably aiming for 2012 to be completed! -

Meanwhile implementations will exist

This brings me to the core of the argument that

a) We cannot standardise innovation(i.e. the standards should be mainly oriented towards simple communication based technologies and higher levels of the stack will focus more on innovation

b) We need to innovate standards – since there are so many interpretations of Open and standard(as the IDC doc points out) that we need to go back to first principles and look at why we need standards in the first place i.e. for communication so that a market

develops(avoid one size fits all standards – i.e. standardize standards)

This gets more complex in the Internet of services(cloud computing)

Considering the emphasis on Web standards, there are three facets to the Web:

a) As an Internet of people(person to person communication mechanism)

b) As an Internet of Content and

c) As an Internet of services(Cloud computing)

So far, the Web has largely been about the (a) Internet of people and (b) Internet of Content. The future will be also largely dominated by the Internet of services(c) i.e. Cloud computing

In that case, the emphasis of standards changes i.e. the purest case of standards(interoperability) is ‘process level interoperability’ i.e. Amazon’s cloud should be able to invoke a process on Google’s cloud

I don’t think that will happen(and the most ‘open’ vendors make no claim that it will)

So, then data level interoperability will become more important(I think)

In any case, the future of standards will be far more complex .. and this is the start of a debate