W3C shows why innovation needs standards

Cooperatively produced standards enable competition, not prevent it

The World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) have announced the release of some new standards which look set to widen what we can do with the Internet and its technologies. While this kind of thing happens all the time, the process is rarely so smooth. Consensus seems to have gone out of fashion in the technology industry, and it's time that changed.

The standards themselves, XML-binary Optimised Packaging (XOP) and the Internationalised Resource Identifier (IRI), won't mean much to most people initially. But what they will allow you to do will make a great deal of difference. XOP means people can use binary data -- photos or music files, for instance -- inside Web-enabled applications more easily. The IRI means that, finally, people outside of the western Latin alphabet world will be able to name their web resources in their own language.

The real message here is not about the standards themselves, but the process that produced them. The W3C and IETF both do a fantastic job of bringing people together from all over the technology industry and academia, and allowing them to produce useful, workable standards without commercial pressure. The rules each body works by also mean that whatever standards either produces are available for all to use on the same terms as everyone else.

This is a stark contrast to what we saw in the Sender ID debacle. Here, Microsoft's own self-interest prevented what could have been a revolutionary standard from being developed and adopted. Instead, we're still stuck with a mail system carrying over 50 percent junk. The desire to retain control has meant an opportunity wasted.

We should applaud the W3C and IETF for just quietly getting on with the job of advancing technology. It seems at the moment they represent a dwindling group of organisations who are willing to concentrate on what's good for technology and the people who use it, rather than political and legal fights over who owns which idea. Hubris won't make things better for anyone.

Standards do not stifle innovation or competition. Rather, they're the foundation for both. The standardised electrical plug and socket have not prevented anyone producing new, interesting and innovative appliances. Instead, they have meant that anyone in the country can buy a new gadget safe in the knowledge they'll be able to power it. We need to bring that same level of reassurance to software and Web services. Then we'll be able to sell more products to more people, producing the healthy technology industry that we'd all like to see.

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