Standardization

As we come to the end of our look at the beginnings of the Internet, I think it’s valuable to consider the role of standardization — specifically its impact on the way the Internet, and things in general, develop. On the one hand, there is the very obvious fact that, when producing something for a large scale, there has to be some agreement between the involved parties. To give a simple real-life example, there would be no cooperation between people if we didn’t not have standard way(s) to communicate. If each person spoke a different language, we certainly wouldn’t get anywhere.The analogue with regards to the Internet is, of course, the various protocols that define, at least to some extent, how users of the network ought to act. From TCP/IP, which has weathered the test of time, to HTTP, there a numerous standardizations that allow the Internet to run.

In my opinion, however, there is equal merit to individuality, or at least, competing standards. Almost always, the first idea is not the best one, or even the second best. Either, we build upon our original ideas and greatly refine them, or sometimes, we throw them out entirely, substituting a superior concept. A “free market” of ideas, where people are able to propose their own thoughts on something can be incredibly instrumental to its ultimate success. Through this open system of evaluation, people are able to test out things for themselves, in the best case perpetuating a process of iterative refinement and, at least, providing several options from which to choose the best. Looking back at the Internet, had OSI never existed, we never would have known how good TCP/IP was. And, perhaps, if more people had been willing to challenge the status quo and develop their own protocols, we might have had an even more efficient system.

Of course, it is pretty much never too late to change and improve a system. There a constantly changes being made to the Internet, despite its massive scale today. And, as a corollary, there are definitely plenty of aspects of the Internet that aren’t standardized. An incredible amount of competing technologies and philosophies exist and continue to arise — e.g. when’s the last time someone developed something with Flash? So, I guess, as with just about everything else, we are forced to conclude that standardization is beneficial in moderation. It’s a good starting point to set a few ground rules, but ideally, design should be flexible and subject to constant re-evaluation and improvement.

One thought on “Standardization

  1. Great points, Hari. I had never thought about the importance of the OSI effort in the terms you put it. You’ve got a very good point there.

    On your point of iterative refinement, we probably made it sound like TCP/IP flashed into being and that was it. There were certainly other standards proposed and built. OSI was just the major competing effort that gets most of the press. Some of the new ideas got incorporated into TCP/IP. Others died a quiet death as they weren’t better or not enough better to make the system change.

    I think the most important point you make to keep in mind for all of us is that standards and the expense of change does increasingly affect the innovation environment as time goes forward. How do we not hold on to something too long? Tough question!

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