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May 1995 issue of Geo Info Systems: “Setting Standards on Firm Foundations: Consortia Structures and Consensus Building”

Andrew Updegrove, Esq.

The following article appeared in the May, 1995 issue of Geo Info Systems, and is copyrighted by that journal

Standards today, depending on one’s definition, include everything from the proprietary Windows/MS DOS operating and conformant applications environment to standards developed through the formal consensus processes conducted through organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). To the end-user, the source of a standard (and in some cases, even its relative quality) is far less important than the fact that at least some degree of standardization exists to simplify operations and lower costs.

Notwithstanding this gloomy reality, the market would still prefer a “good”, and not just a mediocre standard. But what is a good standard, and what is the best process for creating one?

For argument’s sake, let us say that a “good” standard must embody at least the following attributes:

  • Its technical quality must be high (e.g., it must be practical to implement, efficient in its operation and result, compatible with other standards and technical realities, etc.);
  • It must be an effective solution to the problem(s) which gave rise to the effort;
  • It must be timely (i.e., it must be created and made available in a time frame in which it is still useful);
  • It must, in fact, be widely adopted and implemented in actual products.

Of these factors, the last is in many ways the most important (this is the basic reason that most end-users have become MS Windows users, notwithstanding its technical problems, missing features, and much delayed introduction relative to, for example, the Macintosh interface).

Lying somewhere between the proprietary vendor de facto standards and the formal de jure specifications are an ever-increasing number of standards and specifications which have been produced by variously formal and informal groupings of companies, governmental agencies and universities which are usually referred to as consortia. These bodies may coalesce to set a single narrow standard (such as the MIDI music interface, developed and maintained by the MIDI Manufacturers Consortium), or may be formed to create a variety of related standards (such as the Object Management Group (OMG), which is creating a suite of standards to enable the development and implementation of object oriented programming techniques).

When these consortia work well (which is not always the case), they create useful, widely adopted standards in less time than the more formal de jureorganizations. In order to succeed, however, a consortium must be structured in such a way that a critical mass of industry participants can be persuaded to take part. Equally important, the processes whereby the standards themselves are developed must effectively guard against the proprietary forces which almost always are waiting in the wings to steer a standard in one direction or another. Where a participant moves a standard too far towards its own unique advantage, its competitors will usually succeed in preventing the standard’s effective adoption and implementation in the marketplace.

This article will focus on some of the structural features which are most important to permit government and industry to create consortia which are likely to create “good” standards.

Timing is Everything

The most successful consortia are generally those which set a standard setting goal before too many individual companies have created commercial products in that technical area, or at least before major players have made major investments in specific technologies, not all of which can easily be accommodated in a single necessary standard. OMG is one example of a very successful consortium begun with this advantage; those consortia formed in the Unix area which have already come and gone with little impact were usually typical of the latter type. Accordingly, the single most important aspect of standard setting often is perceiving the need and embarking on a solution supported by the industry before the market becomes technically fragmented.

Democracy in Action

Even where a consortium is formed before major investments are made by major vendors, proprietary forces will usually emerge before the standard is complete. Two strategies can prevent individual members or groups of members from subverting the process of creating a standard which has the potential to be widely adopted:

  • the consortium must be structured in such a way that it attracts participation in all categories of necessary members (e.g., hardware vendors, independent software vendors, end-users, academics, government), best done by allowing meaningful participation at a price each group can afford, and granting rights that are worth the price; the resulting membership should be representative enough that an appropriate standard can be developed, and large enough that sufficient adopters will be assured to make the standard attractive to a broader audience.
  • the processes whereby standards efforts are selected, technology is solicited or developed, and final standards are approved, must be set up in such a way (usually through carefully crafted Technical Committee rules) as to attract the broadest and most timely technical contributions, with the least potential for abuse by proprietary forces.

Structure as Solution

There are two hard economic realities affecting consortia: the first is that completely voluntary, low budget organizations have difficulty producing standards in real time. The second is that for the most part, only the large hardware vendors and the small number of large software companies which currently exist have sufficient revenue to pay the membership fees typically required to produce “good” standards. Not surprisingly, the members which pay the lion’s share of the budget of a consortium expect to receive greater privileges as a result.

One challenge in structuring a consortium is therefore to educate the large members that it is in their best interests to give significant rights and participation to small companies, end-users and other interest groups. Once this is accepted, it is usually appropriate to create various levels of membership with differing rights and fees, and often to set fees within a class by the revenue of the member (i.e., bigger companies pay bigger fees for the same rights).

The number and type of membership classes and committees and the rights of different classes of members to participate in committees necessarily varies widely among consortia, and usually changes within even a single consortium as its mission evolves over time. For example, until the recent formation of a lower-fee end-user class of membership in the X Consortium (the developer of the X Window System for the Unix operating system), that entity granted equal rights of participation at all levels to all members, although the fees which large members paid were greater than those paid by small companies. Prior to its spin-out from MIT, the X Consortium in fact had a single governing group (the Advisory Board), in which all members were entitled to participate equally. As part of a continuing evolution of its mission, the X Consortium now has a Board of Directors and a business committee of interested members.

In contrast, the Open GIS Consortium (OGIS) has a rather complex structure which has been carefully constructed to permit maximum participation by different members with different technical concerns, thereby matching level of contribution with type of interest. The result is an organization which will be able to coordinate development of integrated standards in disparate parts of the rapidly evolving world of geodata information.

While OGIS has various classes of members, each with a different set of rights, these rights do not simply scale with economic contribution. Instead, several membership categories relate principally to specific activities (e.g., testbed activities). Another unusual feature of OGIS is that its structure provides for several parallel, hierarchical “tracks” of membership, each of which is concerned with a different technical challenge. Each Track has its own executive director, technical committee, work groups, SIGs, representatives on the Board of Directors, and perhaps most significantly, its own Management Committee.

As a result, many activities which are often the province of the Board of Directors are, in OGIS, performed by a Management Committee which is derived from the membership of its Track. To insure coherence of direction for OGIS and its mission as a whole, there are a number of representatives of the Board of Directors on the Management Committee of each Track, and several representatives of each Management Committee are on the Board.

Significantly, it is the Management Committee of a Track which sets the specific standard objectives and which has the formal power to adopt finished standards, so long as those standards remain within the overall strategic path set by the Board of Directors. As a result, the various technical committees, work groups and SIGS of the Track “report” to the Management Committee of the Track, and not to the Board of Directors. One result of this bifurcation is that the Board of directors has more time to focus on long-term strategic and industry-wide issues, while those members that are most concerned with a given technical area of concern retain the maximum influence over the standards which relate to that technical area.

Despite this complex structure, the By-laws of OGIS are written in such away that new classes and tracks can easily be created, and any other necessary changes can easily be made (flexibility being an essential attribute of any consortium formed in an area as volatile as high technology).

An Open Process is not an End in Itself

While one common belief is that only the de jure standard setting bodies can be trusted to set appropriate standards, due to their broad participatory policies, this belief does not take into account the fact that the resulting standards are too often not “good” standards, by the above definition. Most frequently, this is because the process takes too long, and either the technology has become irrelevant, or important vendors have in the interim become too heavily invested in technology which is not compliant with the standard.

In contrast, consortia can often efficiently and effectively create “good” standards, particularly in a speedy fashion. Their record is, of course, mixed. Where they are conceived in timely fashion and structured in such a way as to be effective vehicles for creating consensus-based standards, they can be an ideal tool for government and private enterprise to cooperate to create fast-evolving technical standards structures, such as those upon which the National Information Infrastructure will be based. In many cases, a membership consortium can be an easy outgrowth of a collaborative group which has received a government grant to create technology. Finally, a consortium will often be a necessary tool to update a standard resulting from a government grant, thus maintaining its usefulness as technology evolves.

The process of creating an effective consortium structure begins with careful analysis of all factors (including proprietary forces) which apply, with this analysis then being followed by the skillful design of an entity equipped to attract members, secure their participation, and produce standards which earn the respect and endorsement of members and non-members alike. The result of this analysis and creative effort can be – and in many instances already has been – the creation of “good” standards by consortia.