Are There Too Many Cooks in the Standardization Kitchen?

4006382352_038c4e9e77_mAnybody who has spent any time around the technology industry knows that broad-based standardization is important, for many reasons. Likewise, openness in standardization processes is also important. Self-interested tech companies have pursued their own proprietary standards proposals and patent moats for years, and can often obstruct open standards, interoperability and more. At the same time, though, can standardization efforts be taken too far? Last week, a group of 19 technology executives and representatives from the ITU’s Standardization Bureau, including people from Cisco and Microsoft, met in Geneva to consider that very question. Their conclusion was that standards are necessary, but that the ecosystem that promotes them has become “too complicated and fragmented.”

According to a communiqué from the Geneva meeting:

“There are hundreds of industry forums and consortia in addition to national, regional and international SDOs [Standards Development Organizations] competing for business. It is becoming increasingly more challenging for the ICT industry to identify and prioritize the places to concentrate their standardization resources.”

The group made a series of recommendations, including “implementation of improvements to the present standards scenario so that SDOs complement rather than compete with one another.” The ITU has been selected to drive the development of a number of initiatives called for at the meeting, including disseminating standards-related recommendations through a web portal or handbook, and more. The group will reconvene in 2010 for a progress check, and Cisco will host the meeting in Silicon Valley.

As examples of why these issues surrounding standards are important, and how delicate they are, I can think of two very important connectivity and networking technologies that have gone through such laborious, multiyear standardization and certification processes, yet their users ended up as the losers: 802.11n (the next generation of Wi-Fi) and USB 3.0 (the much improved new implementation of Universal Serial Bus technology).

While many people have been using Draft-N 802.11n Wi-Fi technology for years, there are also a lot of businesses that won’t switch to a new standard absent official ratification of the technology. In the case of 802.11n, that ratification only occurred a few weeks ago. What’s important about that is that standards proposals for 802.11n first arrived for consideration by the IEEE in 2002 — seven years ago. If you’ve used 802.11n, you know that it has vastly better range and speed than 802.11g. Why should we wait nearly a decade for squabblers to agree on a new Wi-Fi standard that can improve work and play for everyone?

Likewise, the USB Implementers Forum has pushed for acceptance of proposed new USB 3.0 technology for years, but only recently, at the Intel Development Forum, did the technology have what is being dubbed its “coming out party.” It won’t arrive on a widespread basis in products until next year, even though it’s a vast improvement over USB 2.0 in terms of both performance and convenience. Again, too many people argued over the proposed standard for too long.

Standards are important, and multiple parties should be permitted to weigh in on them. I can understand, for example, the anger that Europe and other parts of the world have toward the U.S.’s borderline monopolistic control over Internet standards. At the same time, though, too much complexity and fragmentation in standardization works against users. In technology development, time is always of the essence.