Encountering a Technical Problem? You Too Can Be a Standards Author

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If you have ever faced a technical problem where things that were supposed to work together didn’t, or if you’ve ever had to redo work just because your system needed to operate with a new vendor, you might just turn out to be the author of the next popular standard.

Many commonly used standards didn’t start out as official standards. They weren’t put together by a committee or published by a formal standards body. Instead, they started out as an idea that one individual had about how to solve a technical problem. These ideas became popular and widely adopted because they addressed a widespread problem.

Could any problems that you’ve run into benefit from an open, non-proprietary solution? Do you have an idea for a solution? It could be the germ of a future standard.

Official standards organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the International Standards Organization (ISO), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) have an important role to play in formalizing standards. They work hard to make sure everyone agrees on the meaning of important concepts like HTML (the W3C), the digital representations of emojis (the Unicode Consortium) or even everyday concepts like “gram” or “foot” (the ISO).

These standards ensure that mechanical components from different manufacturers fit together, and that we don’t blow out our electrical appliances when we plug them into the wall. When standardization fails to occur, we end up needing electrical adapters for foreign travel or trying hard not to drive on the wrong side of the road. These organizations play an important role in enabling components to work together. But standards at their heart are just agreements among a community, and these agreements don’t have to come from an “official” source. In practice, the role of a standards body often comes after the fact, when an idea for a common solution to a problem has already taken hold.

In fact, a lot of today’s important technology standards have started as individual efforts, gained traction because they solved a problem, and become de facto standards. In some cases, these de facto standards eventually became formal standards by being published by a standards organization.

Sometimes these individual efforts have edged out official standards by providing a better solution. A good example: the problem of transferring structured data between web browsers and servers. XML was an early solution for data transfer, and it was formally standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium in 1996. But an alternative format, JSON (JavaScript Object Notation, published by Douglas Crockford in 2002) seems on the way to replacing XML. This is due to several advantages—JSON is easier to read, its documents are smaller, and it’s easier to code. And JSON did become a standard—a standard version of JSON was published by ECMA International in 2013.

JSON isn’t the only example of a standard that grew out of one person’s efforts to address a technical problem. Here are a few more:

• a system for conveniently sharing technical documents among geographically separated researchers (the World Wide Web—Tim Berners-Lee, 1990);

• a free, open-source operating system (Linux—Linus Torvalds, 1991);

• a powerful, easy-to-use interpreted language (Python—Guido van Rossum, 1991); and

• a system for running JavaScript applications outside of a browser (Node.js—Ryan Dahl [no relation!], 2009).

What’s next? There is certainly no shortage of speech technology problems today. One that comes to mind is interoperability between intelligent agent platforms like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant. These are still largely proprietary silos. In the long term, proprietary systems can be difficult to sustain when there is an appealing non-proprietary alternative. If you remember online systems like Prodigy or AOL from the 1990s, you will recollect that they had very attractive user interfaces and well-curated content. But they eventually lost out to the open World Wide Web, which, if you remember, started out with pretty clumsy user interfaces and hardly any content.

Do you know of a technical problem that can be addressed by a new standard? Historically, it seems that the surest keys to widespread adoption of a solution are these:

• Solve a problem!

• Make the solution easy to use, with a quick ramp-up time.

• Make it easy for others to make a contribution.

• Make the solution open-source and free, with a permissive software license.

• Publish open-source reference implementations and libraries in multiple popular languages. 

Deborah Dahl, Ph.D., is principal at speech and language consulting firm Conversational Technologies and chair of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Multimodal Interaction Working Group. She can be reached at dahl@conversational-technologies.com.

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