Apparently, Google has recently opined that the future of mobile is web standards. While this is wonderfully vindicating, I think there’s something more important going on here, as it plays out for a broader spectrum than just mobile.
I’ve been reflecting on the benefits that standards have provided. What worked for networks was the standardization on TCP/IP as a protocol for packet transmission. What worked for email was standardization on the SMTP protocol. HTTP standardization has been good for the web, where it’s been implemented properly! What’s been a barrier are inconsistent implementations of web standards, like Microsoft’s non-standard versions of HTML for browsers and Java.
The source of the standard may be by committee, or by the originator. Microsoft’s done well for itself with the Office suite of applications, and by opening up the XML version, they’re benefiting while not doing harm. They own the space, and everyone has to at least read and write their format to have any credibility. While IMS & IEEE held meetings to get learning content standards nailed down, ADL just put their foot down with SCORM (and US Defense is a big foot), and it pretty much got everyone’s attention. But it’s having standards that matters. The fact that Blu-ray finally won the battle has really opened up the market for high definition video!
On the other hand, keeping proprietary standards has hindered development. At the recent VW talks hosted by SRI, one of the topics was the inability to transfer a character between platforms. That’s good for the providers, but bad for the development of the field. Eventually, one format will emerge, but it may take committees, or it may be that someone like Linden Labs will own the space sufficiently that everyone will lock into a format they provide. Until then, any investment has trouble being leveraged in a longer term picture, as the companies you go with may not survive! There’s an old saying about how wonderful standards are because there are so many of them. The problem is when they’re around the same thing! I was regaling a colleague with the time I smoked (er, caused to burn up, not lighting up!) an interface card by trying to connect two computers to exchange data. One manufacturer had, contrary to the standard, decided to put 12 volts on a particular pin!
And, unfortunately, in the mobile space, the major providers here in the US want to lock you into their walled garden, as opposed to, say, Europe, where all the phones have pretty much the same abilities to access data. This has been a barrier to development of services. The web is increasingly powerful, with HTML5, and so while some things won’t work, web-based applications are defaulting to the lingua franca for not just content exchange but interactive activities. The US is embarrassingly behind, despite the leading platforms (iPhone, Pre, etc).
In one sense this is sad that we can’t do better, but at least it’s good to have the web as a fallback now. We can make progress when it doesn’t matter what device, or OS, you’re using, as long as you can connect. The real news is that there is a lingua franca for mobile that you can use, so really there aren’t any reasons to hold off any longer. Ellen Wagner sees a tipping point, and I’m pleased to agree. There may be barriers for enterprise adoption, but as I frequently say: it’s not the technology, the barriers are between our ears (and maybe our pocketbooks :).
Update: forgot my own punchline. Standards need to be, or at least become, open and extensible for real progress to be made. When others can leverage, the greatest innovations can occur.
Standards are hard work, but the benefits for progress are huge. This holds true in your organization, as well. Are you paying attention to standards you should be using, and what you should standardize yourself?