As any vendor will tell you, the beautiful thing about standards is that there are so many of them. This of course means that in some form or another, vendors can always pick some standard to comply with that fits with their business model. On the reverse side of that equation is the customer, who must often feel that all the standards in the world are ill-defined and knows that two products that support the same standard may not work with each other.
None of this is new. Looking as far back as the 1980s, we can see the emergence of SQL as the standard language for accessing databases.
Two decades later, however, no two SQL implementations are alike, and most people are making use of proprietary extensions to SQL to get their everyday database tasks done.
Purists would argue that people should never make use of anything outside of defined standards.
But the reality is that most of the standards organizations are heavily influenced by vendors, which have a compelling financial interest in making sure that standards work only goes so far.
That interest is usually defined as endorsing something that increases the overall size of the market for any given technology. However, it's never made easy enough so that companies can simply do the work themselves. Vendors don't want to harm potential consulting revenue derived from implementing technology on behalf of the customer.
The problem we face today, however, is that standards have become too much of a good thing.
IBM Corp. claims to now have more than 150 people working on some 100-plus different standards committees. These efforts typically involve everything from high-level XML schemas as defined by XML.org to the next generations of fiber-optic networking technology being defined by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
For vendors, this process has become so cumbersome that making sure their products are compatible with all these standards has become a major chore.
And making that process even more difficult is the fact that the standards bodies are not adept at communicating with each other. So very few of these groups really understand what the other group is doing and what implications that work will have on their own efforts.
For customers, the situation is moving from inane to insane.
Instead of just getting incomplete standards that lead to product incompatibilities between vendors in the same category, we're now moving to a situation where standards are potentially incompatible across diverse product categories which absolutely need to work together.
The good news is that tolerance for this kind of nonsense in the business community is starting to drop.
Traditional businesspeople look at standards as ways to increase the value of a technology by making it easily accessible and therefore more broadly used.
But too many technology companies today are pushing little more than proprietary extensions to commodity technologies, and many of those extensions add little value or will simply become part of a standard specification that will be out in less than 12 months.
The problem businesspeople are starting to ponder is that many of these technologies are now the basis for a global expansion in e-business that is being hampered by wars over infrastructure standards.
Given these issues, it won't be too long before businesspeople begin pushing for all the diverse standards bodies to be rolled up under the auspices of something like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization.
Otherwise, we're all likely to spend the next two decades, like the two before it, arguing over the merits of one variation of a cog in a wheel rather than making sure that we get the idea behind the wheel out to everybody on the planet.
Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld. Send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.orgMajor standards organizationsThe computer industry has spawned several standards groups over the past several decades.
* American National Standards Institute (ANSI)* European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA)* Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)* International Standards Organization (ISO)* Object Management Group (OMG)* World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)* Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum.