Elements of a Successful Standard Community

At the last W3C meeting in Santa Clara, David Recordon gave a great presentation about the Open Web community. He concluded (taunting the audience a bit) with a simple question: “Why should Facebook join the W3C,” given the progress and success made with efforts such as OAuth and OpenID.

David’s presentation was followed by a comment by Tim Berners-Lee. Tim’s point was that what the Open Web Foundation is trying to do now – with its very limited scope – is exactly how the W3C started. The problem was, as I have come to realize myself over the past six months, that it wasn’t enough. There is a long list of ‘stuff’ communities need in order to be successful.

I spend most of my time as a specification developer. Almost every day I get a message asking me how come one of the specifications I am working on for more than a year is not yet finished. Two weeks ago I sent an open letter to the members of the Open Web Foundation, questioning the foundation direction and accomplishments. When asked to provide more specific details about what I feel is missing, I came up with the following incomplete list.

  • Platforms – tools that integrate email, messaging, and collaborative tools with the specification development process. We need a mailing list system that manages CLA signatures. We need the source control system that is directly linked to and from email messages sent to the list with ideas and contributions. Open source is successful to a large degree because of the tools available. Until we can tell where changes to a specification come from, we are going to be stuck with a primitive IPR policy and governance models.
  • Participation – it is surprisingly hard to get people to actually contribute to an open community specification. I have the benefit of comparing the quality and quantity of feedback received for my community work and my standards body work and sadly, they don’t compare. I now find myself having to beg for reviews (and still don’t get them). Asking folks at the IETF and W3C for feedback yields much better results.
  • Editors – the most labor intensive part of writing a specification is writing it and editing it. For that reason (and scarcity of talent), it is very hard to find someone to edit open specifications. This is why the handful of specifications we have is largely written by the same small group of people (who are getting busier). They are also generally poorly written. We need experienced editors to help mentor new ones, and for that we need people to step up.
  • Domains, websites, trademarks – someone needs to own and manage the logistics of creating public intellectual properties. I think people need to worry less about the OAuth IPR agreement, and more about who controls the ‘oauth.net’ domain. I wrote a new version of OAuth 1.0 – but who gets to decide if I can replace the existing one with this newer version? Who gets to decide if WRAP can call itself an OAuth profile?
  • Open Source libraries – we are extremely poor in resources for writing quality libraries implementing these specifications. The majority of specifications do not even have a reference implementation or a comprehensive test suite. The main reason why people started working on alternative solutions to OAuth was that that the cryptography and request normalization was too hard and the libraries did a poor job.
  • Chairs / leads
  • Governance models
  • Documentations and guides
  • Demos and experimental sites

I am sure there is more.

What specification communities need – and what existing standards bodies provide – are built-in participation, corporate by-in, editorial services, working group facilities, and legal hand-holding. The fact is that the Open Web Foundation would not exist if memberships in the W3C or OASIS were free, or without the insanely complex and insider-club nature of the IETF.

Some argue that protocols like Pubsubhubbub and OpenID are great examples of successful protocols created without the full support of a standards body. But these are misleading examples. OpenID has a fully-featured standards body – the OpenID Foundation, and Pubsubhubbub is directly sponsored by Google (which experience shows, is the single most important factor in producing a successful Open Web specification).

When we founded the Open Web Foundation, the one thing we all agreed on was that we were not creating another standards body. The foundation grew directly out of the OpenID and OpenSocial experiences. What got us here was the desire to avoid having to create these foundations for each specification.

What we missed was the fact that ‘these foundations’ are in fact mini standards bodies. If we are going to create something to replace ‘these foundations’, it needs to provide at least the same level of services. This might sound like I am proposing turning the Open Web Foundation into a standards body, alongside the W3C, OASIS, IETF, and others. I am not – but I am proposing a significantly different direction.

The obvious problem is that as long as we develop specifications the same way standards bodies do today (and we do), we are doomed to find ourselves coming back to the same problems and needs. And these needs are expensive, which is why the W3C and OASIS charge a high membership fee.

While the IETF is free to join, it has a pretty substantial budget from the ISOC, its events, and sponsorship. In addition, the IETF depends on companies employing members full time for the primary purpose of serving the organization. Ask any IETF Area Director about the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to do their job. For this reason, it has been getting harder to find qualified and available members to fill such demanding roles.

The Open Web Foundation is trying to solve a real problem but it is mostly using the same tools that have failed before, or leading communities in that direction. It is inevitable that these communities will find their way back into standards bodies as their participants mature, join companies who are already members of standards bodies, or find that they simply need more.

This will likely become a cyclical occurrence, as new generations of specification communities will go through the same process as we have. Ready for the New Open Web Foundation ten years from now?

Fortunately, the solution has been right under our noses this all time. We drew our inspiration from Open Source, but took the wrong part – the legal stuff. It is the process and tools that holds the real value and the key to breaking away from the broken, expensive, exclusive, and closed system we have today.

But that’s for another day.

4 thoughts on “Elements of a Successful Standard Community

  1. Have you looked at the Digital Standards Organization, which was set-up two years ago to provide legal frameworks and tools for open standards development? It is much more based on open source principles, including such notions as “one does not need a legal entity in order to develop code”. Compared to OWF it was cheap to set-up in terms of time. It’s not heavily used but there are a few new simple standards that use its frameworks.

  2. You’re coming across the ‘collision with money’.

    How did the world transition from EBCDIC punch-card (a proprietary standard) to ASCII paper-tape (an open standard) ? It certainly happened, but what was the force that made it succeed ? EBCDIC is still used, but all new development is based on ASCII and its globalised successors such as UTF-8.

    That’s the driver you need to tap in to.

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