Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

As part of my work with the Open Source Initiative, I've been thinking a lot about open standards. Open standards are a really important part of the open source, open network, open society ecosystem, but there is also a risk that big companies use the word "open standards" to attack the open source movement. For instance, many companies such as Microsoft would argue that even if they control a standard, just making it "open" makes it an open standard.

One of the biggest players in this space is IBM and I had the opportunity to ask Irving Wladawsky-Berger the Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation of IBM a question about this at the HICSS conference I attended in Hawaii a few weeks ago. Irving was the "Distinguished Lecturer" and I was "Plenary Speaker". I've been a huge fan of Irving's since I first met him in Japan. (He blogged about the conference.) I asked him what his definition of open standards was. The following is a summary of his response. (I just confirmed with him by email about its accuracy.)

If a crunch comes between the interests of the shareholders and interests of the community, a business has to choose the interests of the shareholders. A business creating a standard that it controls and says is "open" and that people should "trust them" is not robust from that perspective. Business should prevent itself from getting into these situation. Working with neutral professional organizations makes it impossible for such conflicts to corrupt the process and is key to good open standards.
This is great news and exactly what I think of when I think of open standards. Go IBM!


Does this mean you will finally vigorously back the W3C? Because this is exactly what it exists for, and does it specifically for web technologies...

They really could use a few new members.. perhaps 6A and TR could cough up a few bucks and join? ;)

I think I like where Irving is going with that. After thinking about this a lot and reading too much Dee Hock, I think that maybe we need to arrive at a place where 21st century companies that build standards and communities, build a need to respect the community interest into the bye-laws of the corporation which would mandate the need not only the interests of the shareholders but also the community on whom the shareholders depend and serve in order to make their living. I think that I am going to build this corporate DNA into the next company that I am involved in building.....

I think this is just along the lines what Bruce Perens uses in his definition of Open Standards.


I agree with you that open standards are important for an open ecosystem.

I would even go as far as considering open standards (and perhaps open content) -at this moment- more important than open source in realization of an open society, because its influence might be greater than just software source code due to the fact that content and the ability to use mutliple tools (compatibility and extensibility etc made possible due the 'openess' of standards) are more visible to the average Joe/Jane on the street.

Actually, there are several ways to game standards organizations:

* For those that permit voting, pack the committee with many votes from your organization.

* Drag the proceedings out and keep sending people past the endurance of other people's or companies' resources.

* Hold the meetings in hard to get to locations or expensive venues.

* Get the committee under the control of a traditional standards organization such as ITU that uses national delegations and be sure your company controls at least one national delegation.

* Ignore an existing standards organization and form your own, as I think happened with IETF and W3C.

* Patent important aspects of the relevant technology. Given the current state of the USPTO, this can be a significant impediment even if there is known prior art.

There are probably still folks at IBM who are, shall we say, familiar with all these techniques.


I especially liked John's insight in how to game standards organisations. :)

It's obvious that the IETF and W3C cannot do everything. But also it's important to understand if they are being ignored for the right reasons, so they can accommodate or change.

For me, rough consensus is still better than voting, as much as it is apparently becoming more difficult to sustain.

Sometimes it's just easier to focus and get better working dynamics by forming a new one, however bringing it all to one place makes sense too.

Or does it not really matter, as long as we get both open source and open standards?

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