Standards that open doors: Interoperability, collaboration, competition and consumer benefits in the standards system

Posted by Craig Shank
General Manager, Interoperability & Standards

I’m Craig Shank, and I work in Microsoft’s Interoperability Group.  In addition to our work on standards and interoperability across Microsoft’s product teams and with stakeholders in the industry worldwide, we have the pleasure of working with James Utzschneider’s team, the hosts of the Openness@Microsoft blog.  I’m excited to join James, Ted and others in sharing our thoughts on some of the key collaborations needed to make products and services work together across the ICT marketplace

With that in mind, let’s talk a little about Microsoft’s dual role in standardization.  We actively contribute innovative technology to standards bodies in many technology areas, ranging from accessibility technologies to key web capabilities in HTML5, to core networking standards.  In addition, as we develop our products, from Windows to Xbox and beyond, we implement thousands of technology standards that are formulated by a broad array of standards bodies.  This balance – sitting on both sides of the standards fence – frames our perspective:  a diverse standards ecosystem that supports multiple technologies is good for the industry, good for global economic growth, and most important of all, good for customers in the ICT marketplace.

In fact, standards are a key part of a dynamic ICT marketplace, and openness and choice are guiding principles to achieving this. Microsoft believes that taking a transparent, inclusive approach to standards development helps ensure that our engagement and participation in the standards ecosystem support outcomes that best serve the needs of the market.

Standardization can seem like a complicated, specialized area, and it should come as no surprise that there is sometimes confusion about the role of standards, most notably how they are created and how they benefit customers.  Microsoft believes strongly that the best standards emerge from voluntary processes and public-private partnerships that allow for dynamic, market-led innovation.

Through a series of blog posts, we thought it would be helpful to establish some basic definitions while illustrating the increasing importance of adopting a more open approach to standards participation and support.  I’ll start with a little background in this post, and we’ll go from there over the coming weeks.

First of all, what is a standard?

As defined by the dictionary a standard is “something established for use as a rule or basis of comparison in measuring, judging capacity, quantity, content, context, extent, value, quality, etc.”

At their most fundamental, technical standards are tools that promote efficiency and innovation by making it easier to create products and services that work together – or “interoperate” – better.

Why do we need technology standards?  What are the specific objectives of standards and how do they relate to a dynamic ICT marketplace?

Interoperability.  One of the recurring challenges in the ICT environments of today – mixed environments that typically use lots of technologies from lots of vendors – is the need for those technologies to work better together, or interoperate. ICT standards are among the many tools that can help achieve interoperability.

They do this by establishing conventions – standards – that provide a common interface or format for the technologies that need to work together.  That’s the nature of an interoperability standard; by definition, it requires the buy-in of many companies who then implement the standard so that their ICT offerings interoperate with those of other companies, including competitors.

This principle applies to the digital technologies of today. There are many examples of voluntary standards in the ICT sector: Bluetooth, for example, is an open standard for short-range radio frequency (RF) communication. While the Bluetooth specification was first developed by Ericsson, it was formalized by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group or SIG. Microsoft is a “Promoter” member of this SIG along with 10 other companies including Sony, Apple, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba. In total, over 12,000 companies participate in the SIG.

A healthy standards ecosystem is one which balances protections that encourage companies to voluntarily contribute their popular innovations to a given standardization effort, with the needs of implementers for sufficient access to those innovations in order to successfully implement the standards.

Collaboration.   Work across diverse groups is essential for both establishing and implementing standards – collaboration among companies, customers and standards bodies. In fact, participating in a standards body is a well understood and accepted way for competitors to collaborate for the benefit of the entire community.  Developing a standard as a community can move the entire industry forward, through three key stages:  first, effective, transparent information-sharing amongst companies, developers, and customers; second, the collaborative focus in the standards body on solving practical, real-world problems; and finally the vigorous competition that results as vendors seek to use innovation over and above the standard to win customers and gain market share.

Competition. As we’ve seen, competing companies collaborate on the standard and then compete for customers on the strength of their innovation. Collaboration and competition live side by side in the complex ICT marketplace. And in addition to competing companies, there are also often competing standards. This is natural, given that standards generally begin as a technology innovation by a particular company, which then becomes popularized on the strength of its innovation. Multiple standards thus commonly co-exist within the technology world, created by different entities for different purposes at different times, and they succeed to the degree that they’re accepted and implemented by the marketplace.

Consumer Trust. As a result of that competition in both standards and the marketplace, multiple standards typically broaden consumer choice, particularly when overlapping standards address different customer needs or different stages in technology life cycles. Consumers play a critical role in deciding which standards survive and succeed based on the products they choose to buy.  Consumers don’t care much about the standards process per se – they care about what they’re able to do with the technology rather than how it works or was developed; they want it easy to use and they want to be free to choose.

Next time, we’ll examine the importance of openness and choice in regard to standards development processes.

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