Standards in search of a problem

James Gosling wrote this pleasing little essay in 1990 about the phases standard setting goes thru.

It’s a nice little model with only two variables over time.

  • the political demand for a standard and
  • the supply of technical skills to execute on that desire.

This model was taken from Toshi Doi of Sony.  James’ point is that some standards get set before the technology is ready, while others get set after plenty of skill has accumulated.

This is a nice complement to the models that emphasis the demand side network effects around standards. Those models focus on the buyer’s problem of timing when to jump onto the bandwagon. The buyer in that case afraid that he will jump to soon and onto the wrong one and then later he’ll have to pay huge switching costs. On the other hand he’s afraid he will jump too late and be left behind while others capture the early mover advantages. Those models help explain why the demand for a standard will often runs way out in front of the supply of skills to fufill that demand.

He reaches a somewhat bleak conclusion, that we often setting standards ahead of the technology. I was reminded of this essay recently. While XML is widely used for protocol messaging the XML community is apparently lacking in a number of tools that a protocol designer would have expected. For example there is no standand way to negotiate protocol level when sessions start. For example there is no effective way to make minor revisions to a protocol and yet avoid having to spinning up an entire new namespace each time.

In turn, that reminded me how supply and demand play off each other in suprising ways. In some cases supply gets way out in front of demand. The classic dismissive phrase of business leaders for that is: “Ah, a solution in search of a problem”. In many many cases demand overwhelms supply and somebody will show up with a fraudulent solution. As witnessed by most weight loss programs, gas additives, or school reform plans.

Gossling’s bleak conclusion, that many standards emerge inspite of insufficent skill to design them well, doesn’t go far enough. There is also the common sad cenario where standards emerge years and years ahead of any demand for them.

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