Standards & Technology

A Look Behind the Scenes

Users Drive IT Standards

Traditionally, vendor-created groups have driven standardization efforts. Now more and more users are voicing their needs.

By Carl Cargill

On July 29, Microsoft stunned the standards world by announcing that it would contribute its object technologies ActiveX and DCOM to a standards organization to be named later. On Oct. 1, ActiveX stakeholders selected The Open Group of Cambridge, MA, as that body. However, the important thing about these announcements is not that Microsoft chose to make them but that they are derived from a marketing decision, driven by market factors over which Microsoft had little or no control. This is a good occasion for examining the factors that drive an organization to standardize its technology.

The first reason that springs to mind is that "it gives the submitting company a market advantage." This is the reason that so many standardization wars have broken out. The company that initiates what the market believes is a good activity (standardization) is attacked by competitors who want, in the name of "a level playing field," to take away the advantage that the developing company has. There is a certain logic to this: If you're going to compete, it is nicer to compete where one vendor doesn't have a completely dominant market position.

I believe that most companies that participate in standardization don't submit products that dominate the market. To do so is foolish. If you dominate the market, you become the "de facto standard," and you don't need to go to a committee to standardize. The most egregious example of this within the computer industry is, of course, Windows. Similar earlier examples were VMS (a dominant minicomputer OS), IBM's disk interfaces and others. However, when compared to other industries, such as the drug industry, the computer industry is reasonably open. The major pharmaceutical companies patent and vigorously defend drugs that they create, and they are allowed to continue to retain unique ownership of them for a lengthy period of time.

This is an instructive example. You seldom see organizations such as "Open Tranquilizer Forum" or "World Wide Anti-Depressant Consortium" being formed in pharmaceutical industries. You do see automobile, aircraft and petrochemical industry consortia being formed, but they are formed for the benefit of the providers, not the users. These industries may pass along savings incurred to the end user, but you will not see the auto makers being driven to standardize by enraged automobile users. This user pressure is the unique ingredient in information technology standardization, and it is now driving the standardization movement.

Vendors Yield to Users

That is the point that many participants in the process have overlooked. In IT standards, the major standardization activities were traditionally the result of vendors getting together. ASC X3 (the largest IT SDO in the U.S.), ISO's Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1), the IEEE's Accredited Organization and others were all fed and supported by major vendors. The major consortia--X/Open, OSF, Unix International, COS--were all started by systems vendors. And the products of these consortia and SDOs were usually standards or specifications that were used by the vendors, not the end users. For example, the SCSI disk interface was not written by people who used computers or PCs; rather, it was written by suppliers and some user technologists, usually provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The change that is taking place and to which the major vendors are becoming sensitized is that the end users--with the advent of the World Wide Web and the Internet--are now capable of driving the standardization movement with which they interface. This is an important distinction between the "old" and "new" standardization movements. The old movements still continue; they consist primarily of vendors fighting among themselves as to what they want or need to do. This is the hardware, operating system, low-level interconnect arena traditionally embraced by vendors. The "new" standardization movement is taking place both in selected organizations and outside of most organizations. It is where users are demanding and receiving, in near-record time, solutions to problems they face in running their businesses.

The new, user-driven mechanism is wonderfully efficient. The Internet had been slowly evolving since 1965; the World Wide Web made it largely usable, and browsers have made it even more so. Then users began to clamor for better designs and more interactivity. Netscape introduced the "user-friendly browser," and Sun introduced Java. Users found these to be to their liking, so they demanded that other, more traditional suppliers support the movement. DEC responded with Alta Vista, and Hewlett-Packard also joined the movement. The Object Management Group--using its new structure of application groups--became involved with object request broker (ORB)-enabled browsers and Web objects. The World Wide Web Consortium, listening to users, began to embrace diversity in its offerings and recognized that evolution--and multiple solutions--were viable responses. Even Microsoft, which many believed to be exempt from market forces, began to change to accommodate this new style of user-mandated standardization.

New World Order

This brings us back to the beginning of this column. The major players in the IT arena have come to understand that the new standards are being set by the market. It is no longer possible for the vendors to decide what the future holds, and then turn around and tell the users what they're going to get. The provider side must produce solutions that solve user--not vendor--problems. Users are no longer tolerant of systems that don't interoperate; the Web has shown that interoperability is possible and expected. Heterogeneous computing--which is the goal of true standardization--has been shown not only to be possible but very useful. The appearance of extranets (industry-wide intranets) has made the underlying computing engines relatively unimportant. Users are beginning to enjoy being able to create what they want, no longer constrained by vendor infighting.

This is the real message that the ActiveX and DCOM announcement sends to the market. Users are serving notice that they are turning away from the proprietary; they are serving notice that they are planning the future of computing because they need certain things to make business run. It is this running of a business--from a small store to a massive multinational corporation--that is driving the nature of standardization and with it, the nature of the IT industry.

As in the old saying, "He who pays the piper calls the tune," users have finally realized that it is they who are paying the piper, and the tune they are calling is "cooperation, interoperability, accessibility and speed." Vendors who don't dance to this tune will be replaced. On the other hand, users who don't exercise their prerogative will also be replaced--by their competitors who had the courage and will to speak out and demand these solutions.

Carl Cargill is standards program manager at Netscape Communications in Mountain View, CA. He can be reached at