My thoughts on why invented standards succeed or fail

October 31, 2009

So suppose that you have a standard that, regardless of the risks, has invented things instead of just documenting existing practice. What helps it succeed or pushes it towards failure?

(By success I mean that the standard is implemented and gets used; by failure I mean that it is either not implemented or ignored.)

Implementing and using a standard has costs, and people are lazy. This implies that a standard's chances of success are going to depend a lot on its benefits relative to the current status quo. Thus, the 'best' (most likely to succeed) invented standard is in a new field (one without existing standards to 'compete' with it) and answers a clear need, solving a problem that people are wrestling with; such a standard delivers high benefits, as it is the only solution to a real problem.

Correspondingly, the 'worst' (least likely to succeed) standard is one that is in a field that already has existing standards (either formal or just de facto) and that offers only minor functional differences over what you can already do with the existing standards. Even if the cost of using this standard is extraordinarily low, its 'profit' (benefits minus costs) will always be small because its benefits are so small; with higher costs of use, you'll never see any net benefit from using it.

(I have sort of been ignoring the costs of implementing and using a standard, but obviously they matter too; an extraordinarily costly standard had better deliver extraordinary benefits, and you can probably get people to adopt a standard that has zero cost but only a small benefit because, well, why not adopt it at that point, it's not like it costs you anything. There are probably ways to reduce the cost of a standard, such as by delivering a test suite as part of it.)

This is by no means the whole story of why standards succeed or die; in real life, as opposed to theoretical musings, there is a whole pile of other things going on. (After all, the ultimate way of getting your standard to succeed is to have it adopted as a requirement by someone who is big and powerful. But as they say: with sufficient thrust even pigs can fly.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2009-11-01 00:48:58:

You touched on this, but there are worse ways for a standard to fail than not being adopted. A crappy standard could gain just enough momentum to keep anyone from trying to replace or fix it, dooming an industry to years of crappy implementations. I'm not going to name names...

Written on 31 October 2009.
« The risk continuum for standardization success

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Last modified: Sat Oct 31 23:07:36 2009
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