The role of standards and their production

Two way communication depends upon a commonality of language representation. Efficient distribution of services and consumables demands smooth connections in the supply channel. Trade is built upon agreed units of measure and value. Civilisation and standardisation feed off each other, and this process is seen as progressive because the implementation of standards provides a foundation on which new projects can be based—projects that would not be practical without that foundation.14 The apparent changes wrought to the standardisation process by the electronic information technologies are due only to the extreme and continuing increases in speed of change and detail of specification, not to any reinvention of the purposes of standardisation. However, those increases of speed and detail have put enough pressure on the system for some significant variants to the process of standardisation to emerge.

Depending on their purposes, standards have long been determined by either a statutory authority or by the market. The problems that resulted from the unplanned collision of local statutory standards, from rail gauges to international telephone calls, have been largely relegated to history with respect to the electronic information technologies through the overwhelming acceptance of global standard setting in these areas by the likes of the International Standards Organisation. However, the full formal process of ratifying standards through the levels of international and national bureaucracies has no way of keeping up with the demand for technical resolution, and so it has largely devolved to vendor-dominated working parties producing draft and interim standards which are simultaneously implemented in hardware and software products from those very vendors.

While communications standards have largely been determined through the statutory route, the market has dominated the setting of standards for computing hardware and software, sometimes to the point where the very notion of ‘standard’ has been sufficiently debased to popularly include Intel’s microprocessors and Microsoft’s operating systems. However there remains space for a single vendor to develop a technology to the point where it gains the critical mass of acceptance and use needed to make it a meaningful standard for some specific area of functionality. An example with which I am particularly familiar is Adobe’s development of the PostScript® ‘page description language’ which facilitated the desktop publishing revolution (Smith, 1987). Another of particular relevance to the development of electronic information services is the Graphic Image Format (GIF) adopted by CompuServe and popularised by the Internet for the storage and transmission of graphic images, such as those in the ever-popular newsgroup alt.binaries.erotica. For ‘big ticket’ items, such as the development of compact disk technology to higher capacities and novel purposes (CD-ROM, CDI, etc.) contending standards are usually developed and promoted by consortia of major vendors, which often shake down to just two prospective formats before the market is ever tested.

Internet-wide standardisation issues, of which there are many, are generally dealt with by ‘technical working parties’ which are formed on an ad hoc basis through a peer process without either democratic mandate or statutory authority. The achievements of this approach provide one of the strongest endorsements of the Internet’s overall anarchic methods, although in technical contexts where the Internet community has a natural competence.15

The practicalities of the formal and market approaches to standard setting have clearly converged to a point where, from either perspective, if you can get enough key people to agree and, between them. they can rapidly mobilise a critical mass of application of your technology then you will most likely have your standard and be able to move your attention on to the new opportunities that its adoption opens up. Through its natural facilitation of global collaborations, the Internet has become a means for this process to run at high speed. The World Wide Web is the result of Internet standardisation reaching a new high and points to the enormous advantages that the Internet community has in its self-fulfilling process of implementing the shared vision of cyberspace.