When a Standard Isn’t

When a Standard Isn’t

Since I’ve been in full bore “old fart” mode for the past week or so, I may as well get this gem off my chest to cap off the week.

A recurring theme this week for me, professionally and personally, is the use (or misuse / misappropriation) of the meaning of words.

Take Standards. I wrote a post earlier today about “the emerging standard of OpenSocial” (emphasis mine). A standard is usually one thing by which some other thing is measured. Since there is an absolute dearth of any applications supporting OpenSocial, how can it be called an emerging “standard?” Hell – it doesn’t even purport to be a specification. At the very most optimistic is a very strongly worded letter with very strong recommendations as to what should be supported – but you can define any extensions you like. What the hell is “standard” about that?

Out here in the wilds of the World Wide Web, people bandy about “standards” as if they are passed down on high, when by and large standards are the most flimsiest of figments of the imagination.

Don’t believe me?

In reality, most “standards” come about because someone is first to crack an idea or concept, make it wildly popular, and everyone follows a “compatibility” formula to success. It is only after the market leader has been established that someone comes along behind, codifies what is in fact a fait accompli, and declares a “standard” now in place. Rarely has it worked the other way around, where someone publishes a document, calls it a “standard” and a successful market spring up around it.

I can think of a set of successful “standards” documents that arguably worked this way: the Q’uran, the Bible, and the Torah – but they are entirely outside the scope of this discussion.

I can cite several early technology examples: the IBM PC compatible (possible because IBM published the ROM code and opened the door to the wild success of PC compatible systems); the Hayes Modem AT command set, which revolutionized the ability of PC software to control modems of any make or manufacture as long as they could recognize the Hayes AT command set; the SoundBlaster audio card and command set, which allowed anyone who could communicate with SoundBlaster’s original code set to talk to anyone else’s SB compatible plug in cards.

This is just a handful of the pioneers who were wildly successful, created the “standard” first, and then had it codified by the marketplace. Again, the emphasis is mine.

Even in the web world, though there exist many so called “standards”, all of the successful ones came about as a result of one company dominating (for a time) and everyone else following behind and calcifying a “canon.” Netscape (plus their extenstions) for HTML; 3COM and Ethernet; Internet Explorer and DOM and XMLHTTPRequest (“Ajax” to many of you); with very few exceptions, the “standard” always recognized the de facto market leader, and THEN became codified canon.

Working code is always the coin of the realm.

If we all had to wait around for specification bodies to waive their hands and declare what standards we’d all use nothing would ever get done. Perfect is the enemy of the good.

I had a conversation with a new Facebook contact yesterday and he was talking about how things would get so much better for communication across social networks once social networking “standards” equivalents like XHTML and Acid were adopted. I reminded him that having a standard like XHTML and Acid codified did not force anybody to use them. How many websites follow XHTML? Far too few. How many browsers are fully Acid compliant? You could count them on one hand and 99 out of 100 people don’t use them.

First movers who capture the market set the standard. Twitter isn’t the best designed site, it’s not the prettiest. But they were first out the gate to capture lightning in a jar and it would damn near take a stroke of timing and luck to knock it out of position merely on the basis of looks, speed, and technical merit. The market has spoken, for good or ill.

So, the next time someone starts yammering about the OpenSource “standard” API, be polite. Smile. Nod. If you’re from the South, think “Bless their heart.”

The market always dictates the standard, not the other way around.

This old fart is now going back into his house and you kids can get your ball out of my yard before I call the cops.


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