Friday Mailbag (cheaters edition)*

Question: When is a standards body needed for a technology and when should progress be left up to innovators?

Answer: That's a good question. I'm glad I thought of asking myself this question just moments ago. Actually I've been thinking about RSS, XML, FOAF and efforts to ping commenting systems and blogs, integrate them with IM, email, wikis, message boards, text phone messaging systems, blog tool APIs and such for the better part of 3 years. Some of these efforts to make an interoperable standard have succeeded and are being extended. Some of the current implementations will whither over the next few years and eventually languish in obscurity.

I was thinking about the relationship between a set standards body and it's introduction to a certain process and wondered at what point the decline of innovation sets in. For instance, as I'm driving home from work on 101, there are painted dashed lines so I may guide myself in a general direction. I can deviate to cross a lane. If the folks who envisioned roads back in the early 1900s thought about adding rails to the road perhaps my car would be part of a sophisticated monorail network, making it hard to change lanes but operating at peak efficiency, speed and perhaps more safely than travelling among painted lines. There are tradeoffs to consider with both options, but I don't have a monorail under my car do I?

I think the adoption of a general direction with guidelines and suggestions is perhaps the best scenario for most technologies. Does it upset me that I have 5 different car chargers for the various cell phones I have owned. Yes. Would the cell phone industry and cell users benefit from a guideline for future car chargers ? Yes, certainly. Would it stifle innovation? Probably a little. Is it evil to think that the cell phone companies probably don't want to adhere to a guideline so they may continue to sell you a new charger every few years? No (and it's probably true).

I was invited to join the Social Software Alliance as a founding member. We just had our first conference call to discuss the direction of the group. There were lots of interesting folks on the call: Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, Kevin Marks, Marc Canter and Peter Kaminski to name just a few (the full list will be here soon). I believe that it was agreed that a primary purpose of the group is to talk about identity management, interoperability of social software and to become a hub for 'quickly publicizing and vetting standards'. I think as long as this 'body' sticks to the guidelines side of things and less to the standards side that they will be in the clear.

Where am I going with all of this? My answer to the bigger question is a standards body is needed when a technology gains enough market attention and traction so as to require a coherent group to process and understand the needs of the marketplace but perhaps not if this is being done well already in industry. By well, I mean fair and reasonable. My example of the evil cell charger cabal is not 'fair'. My advice for those asking for standards or starting a standards group: Be careful and listen well. I don't want a monorail connected to my blog (or my car) without my permission.

* No one asked me this question, I cheated. Sorry. :(

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