“IBM May Quit Technology Standards Bodies” WSJ Screams

Some days I wonder about the entire field of journalism. The quoted phrase above is from an article headline in the Wall Street Journal (September 23, 2008, they don’t deserve an actual link). The headline is not inaccurate, but it is close to the most ludicrously sensational interpretation of the facts that is possible.

This is what the actual IBM press release has to say on the point: “The tenets of IBM’s new policy are to: Begin or end participation in standards bodies based on the quality and openness of their processes, membership rules, and intellectual property policies.”

Thus an equally useless headline might be “IBM May Join Technology Standards Bodies.” I thought Journalism was supposed to add value for the reader, but it seems that even for otherwise reputable organizations, it’s really all about sensational headlines that add value to the advertising department. “Reputable” in this context is now officially meaningless. Sad.

I’ve noticed a lot of general criticism of standards processes over the past few weeks, and I think this release from IBM is largely responsible for firing up the discussion. For the most part, the criticism is justified. It seems that standards processes are either needlessly academic and somewhat out of touch with reality, or deeply buried in corporate politics and patent complications, which has a tendency to result in crappy standards. IBM’s policy release sort of touches on this with another tenet: “Collaborate with standards bodies and developer communities to ensure that open software interoperability standards are freely available and implementable.” The problem with this is that IBM seems to want to set itself up as some benign intermediary between the standards process and the people who need to use the standards. Call me silly, but it seems more appropriate that the developer communities should be an integral part of the standards process, not some second-hand “collaborative resource”.

The essence of the problem is funding. Participation in the standards process isn’t cheap. Not only does membership cost, but participants typically absorb the costs of time, travel, and communications. Standards bodies need a funding model that ensures accessibility based on merit and relevance, rather than dollars. I don’t know what that model is, but is can’t be based on revenue from selling standards documents, either. The prospect of having to pay real money in order to ensure compliance with a standard is, in most cases, equally ridiculous and stupid.