Users must set standards for products

For more than 50 years, IT customers have complained that their suppliers do a poor job of building standardized, interoperable products. Over the next decade, we will find out if the IT user community can do the job any better.

Through the 1980s, de facto vendor standards such as SNA, DECnet, MS-DOS and NetWare determined how most IT products were used. While efforts were made to link these systems, the results were spotty. “Islands of computing” became the dominant metaphor for the incompatibility that resulted.

During the 1990s, the largely accidental emergence of the Internet changed all of this, and the IT industry began to fulfill its promise. Through open standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the underlying plumbing of the Internet has become increasingly interoperable. It’s doubtful whether the major IT vendors would have ever sorted things out so effectively by themselves.

As evidenced by the emergence of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) e-business standards group and the debate over J2EE and .Net, vendors and standards bodies certainly still have roles to play. However, over time, these groups will lose much of their current pre-eminence.

Consider Web services. Although Extensible Markup Language, Simple Object Access Protocol, Web Services Description Language, etc., can do a good job of linking one application to another, they’re inherently limited in that they don’t understand the actual meaning of the data being processed, the so-called semantic content of the application.

Tim Berners-Lee and the W3C are trying to address this limitation by enabling the development of general-purpose, rules-based Semantic Web systems based upon the Resource Description Framework. It’s an interesting and theoretically sound concept. However, right now it looks like the real-world standardization process will remain the task of IT users and, at least initially, will be done at an industry-specific level.

Today, just about every major business sector has launched some sort of standards initiative. Prominent examples include RosettaNet (electronics), ACORD (insurance), UCC (retail), STAR (automotive), IFX (finance) and the health care terminology database recently endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In many ways, the task of these groups is to standardize the top levels of the IT industry stack. It will be one of the next great e-commerce frontiers.

As with most IT standards processes, success is by no means assured. Developing and implementing industry-specific standards has significant direct costs and requires scarce technical talent.

In contrast, many of the benefits are, by definition, aimed at industries as a whole and aren’t usually designed to favour one competitor over another. This can be a formula for inertia and delay; Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s aggressive leadership in the use of radio frequency identification technology is important because it spurs adoption of a standard.

History provides reason for optimism. Over the years, customers have established interoperable, industry-specific IT standards in areas such as retail point-of-sale systems, credit cards and automated teller machines. The challenge today is to replicate these successes on a much wider and more rapid scale. Arguably, only RosettaNet has reached a critical mass of usage and momentum.

Unfortunately, many IT departments are still much more focused on general-purpose vendor standards than the industry-specific projects that are just as important to their businesses. Over time, these priorities will change, with IT professionals taking the lead in this next great phase of IT standardization and growth.

David Moschella’s latest book is Customer-Driven IT: How Users Are Shaping Technology Industry Growth . Contact him at