Standards Block Innovation?

Last week Landon Blake vented his frustration at the Open Geospatial Consurtium by claiming that poorly designed standards create obstacles to innovation and collaboration. This touched off an interesting discussion on always interesting Geowanking mailing list.

I don’t buy Landon’s argument about collaboration – and in fact I think his blog post shows the opposite. But innovation is an entirely different matter. I’m with Landon on this one – I think standards can stiffle innovation. How? Well, I see two ways.

First, some standards are so broadly defined that there is little hope of interoperability. Why would you come up with such a standard? I think Landon gets right to the heart of the matter:

If you were a proprietary software company working to design a software standard that would dominate your particular industry, would you tweak it to your competitive advantage, or to someone else’s competitive advantage? Come on now, be honest with me…

Not to pick on GML again, but I think its a good example of such a standard. As a vendor, I can go implement GML support in my product, check the “supports OGC standards tick box,” and yet provide no interoperability with other vendor’s implementations. Cynical? Damn right. Does it happen. Of course.

A second problem arises from “blessed” standards which are too complex or too poorly designed. A good example is XML Schema. Because the W3C put its stamp of approval on XML Schema, its the main game in town. It goes back to that old saying “You won’t be fired for buying IBM” – well you won’t be fired for implementing or using XML Schema.

However, there are better alternatives such as RelaxNG. Now better is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but if you ask a number of technical people which standard they prefer, RelaxNG will win hands down.

Yet its adoption is painfully slow despite the fact that it was authored by one of the foremost experts on markup languages and has the support of the digerati. If RelaxNG can’t topple Goliath, then woe to those that try to topple entrenched standards with less illustrious supporters.

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