Building the Perfect Body
By Jeff Goldman, Tue Mar 11 09:45:00 GMT 2003

From size to focus, what makes a standards organization successful?


At last summer's launch of the Open Mobile Alliance, Mark Winther, Group Vice President for Worldwide Telecommunications for IDC, was extremely optimistic about the organization's potential. "Established as an alliance of alliances, the OMA promises to sweep away the barriers of information sharing," he said.

Some analysts remain unconvinced. Zelos Group analyst Seamus McAteer says the group is just too large. "It's not a standards body: it's an umbrella community of interests," he said. "Having an OMA stamp of approval isn't going to mean anything: it's like the kitchen sink of standards bodies."

Others, inevitably, take the opposite view. Synergy Research analyst Aaron Vance says a broad community is exactly what's needed. "You have to have a wide variety of companies involved so the organization isn't catering to one company's specific agenda," he said. "It needs to be almost like the U.N. of a technology, so that everybody has a fair say."

Is it possible to build the perfect standards body? An organization that's too small won't be able to get the market's attention, but one that's too broad and all-encompassing won't have a specific impact on the market it's trying to affect. What's the best way to reach a balance?

Finding the Right Size

In-Stat/MDR analyst Allen Nogee suggests that specific standards, developed by smaller groups, can have a great impact on the market. "The initial 802.11 standards, for example, were quite limited in their scope," he said. "The attitude was, 'We'll do simple things now, and then we'll add enhancements as time goes by.'"

Although a smaller, simpler standard might not do everything for everyone, Nogee says, it gets the word out quickly and clearly. "Once people start using it, they come up with other things they can do with it," he said. "There's something to be said for making a streamlined, 'just get it out there' standard, then enhancing it later."

On the other hand, Giga Information Group analyst Ken Smiley points out, there's a danger in getting too specific. "Tightly focused standards bodies may only be successful in the short term as a specific problem arises," he said. "Over the long term, as the market shifts, they risk becoming irrelevant without joining forces to attack an overall problem or something larger in scope."

Still, Smiley notes that there's another danger inherent in creating an organization as large as the Open Mobile Alliance. "OMA's charter is to attack the problem of wireless data, which is pretty broad in scope and encompasses a wide range of technologies and vendors-which makes one wonder whether or not it is a 'me too' club or a group that really has the ability to get anything done," he said.

Aberdeen Group analyst Isaac Ro says it won't be easy to find common ground between the OMA's members. "This is one of the few areas where you're going to have Microsoft and Nokia sitting at the same table," he said. "These companies each have millions of dollars invested in their given strategies. Working with your arch enemy, even towards a common goal, is very difficult."

Ro suggests that SyncML, which is now under the umbrella of the OMA, is a good example of an organization that found the right balance from the beginning: it has a specific purpose that answers a universal need-and it also has broad industry backing. "Most of the major players are behind that initiative simply because the need is so universal," he said.

Whose Standard?

In looking at any standards organization, regardless of size, a healthy dose of skepticism is key. Giga's Smiley suggests that the relevance of a particular alliance really comes down to who's in control. "Most of them are irrelevant-unless you want to do business with the company that is sponsoring the forum or standards body," he said.

When one vendor dominates a niche in the market, standards can all too easily become a way for that vendor to push their own agenda-whether the market is interested or not. "The example I always think of is Microsoft's dynamic HTML, which you can claim is a standard because of the dominance of Internet Explorer, but few organizations have adopted it for practical use," Smiley said.

Still, according to Zelos Group's McAteer, you really can't blame Microsoft for taking advantage of the opportunity-or other companies for joining in. "Microsoft's got $30 billion in the bank, and if they say, 'Do you want to be part our standards group: we're going to promote the hell out of it," a lot of people will line up and behind that piper," McAteer said. "Why not? It's free P.R."

And it's hardly a new idea. Just a few years ago, In-Stat's Nogee recalls, a single company could create a standard and let it grow on its own. "In developing the modem standards, Hayes came up with the command set, and that became the de facto standard," he said. "Today, things are so much more competitive that it's a harder act to pull off than it was a few years ago."

Ultimately, regardless of who created them in the first place, any standard becomes a free resource for companies to use in a competitive marketplace. "That's how standards should be viewed: they are free resources," McAteer said. "And they're also generally used as competitive weapons: people try to build communities of interest and standards organizations around their own technology."

As a result, regardless of the size of the organization, it's only reasonable to expect a battle of the wills between any one company's desire to control the market, and the need for standards to open up that market in the first place. "Profits follow free resources," McAteer said. "The problem with standards is that they're so good, everybody wants one of their own."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.