Standards: why you want them

And why you're unlikely to get them without demanding change

Standards and TLAs: there are hundreds if not thousands in our industry, but somehow we never quite get there. What is the real attraction of the promise of standards? The technical team will say code portability and interoperability, the application development team will talk about freedom to pick the development environment of choice while retaining a single code set, the integration team may talk about the ability to seamlessly plug and play applications without months of torment as to how application A will exchange all the bits of information it needs to with application B in real-time. The budget holder should say “At last I’m not locked into any vendor any more, so I have freedom of choice as to what I buy and from whom I buy it.”

The last statement is also the primary reason standards don’t ever make it to completion. To achieve completion a standard has to be functional enough to meet the broad needs of today’s diverse IT environment and be ubiquitously deployed across the industry. On that basis, rather than hundreds or thousands of standards, we really only have three today — TCP/IP, HTTP and SSL. Most of the other so-called standards of today are either not ubiquitous or suffer from a lack of functionality and robustness.

This results in vendors putting enhancements or extensions into these standards to make them more robust or functional. Alas, it also totally defeats the purpose of the standard as you no longer have any of the aforementioned attributes that any of your various teams may have desired.

Having spent 25 years on the vendor side of the IT industry, I have to confess I have never quite swallowed the story that vendors insert these extensions purely and unselfishly in the interests of providing you, the customer, with a better mousetrap. They do it to differentiate themselves and to lock you in, and as such there is a compelling force that prevents standards reaching maturity, because as soon as they do, the vendor in question just got opened up to competitive forces.

So as a customer you have a choice. You can accept proprietary extensions, and the further down that track you go, the more and more you become an XYZ Customer. With that eventually comes the realisation that you are locked in and that you will ultimately end up paying a premium for the service (or lack thereof) and the product (or lack thereof) that you are forced to purchase from XYZ Company because the cost of change is just too high.

Or you can progressively kick any vendor out the door that does not commit 100% to standards compliance and certification and only deal with those who do, and over time you have a reasonable chance of achieving some of the aspirations above and being able to buy the right solution at the right price.

Until the majority of customers in New Zealand accept the latter proposition, in my opinion achieving a standards-driven industry is a pipe dream as the incentive for the big companies is to always twist the tail of standards. That’s how they will remain big companies.

It’s your choice.

Erskine is general manager of SeeBeyond. He has more than 25 years' experience in the New Zealand IT marketplace

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