Following my blog post on Open Standards and the JISC IE which I wrote back in September Stephen Downes responded with some comments which I include below:

In retrospect many of the W3C standards which I had felt should form the basis of the JISC IE have clearly failed to have any significant impact in the market place – compare, for example, the success of Macromedia’s Flash (SWF) format with the niche role that W3C’s SMIL format has.” Just so. But these standards didn’t fail because they were open. They failed because, for various reasons, they didn’t do what people wanted. Open standards are still better – but the lesson here is that standards are not necessarily better just because they’re open.

Absolutely, the standards didn’t fail because they were open. The point I was making in my post was that the openness of a standard is no guarantee that it will be successful.  And it is important to remember this to avoid policy makers mandating open standards which in reality may fail to have any significant impact.

But why do open standards, such as SMIL and SVG, fail? Stephen suggests they failed “because, for various reasons, they didn’t do what people wanted“.  There may be something in this, but I feel there are other potential reasons why standards may fail, which I’ve listed below.

Failure to promote the standards: A standards body may fail to promote the benefits of its standards to the user community or to potential vendors.  I don’t think this is the case for SMIL and SVG as W3C is very good at promoting its technical developments.

Standards are not accessible:  In an environment in which the accessibility of digital resources is becoming important in the selection of formats by user organisations, especially in the public sector, there may be reluctance to make use of standards which are not felt to be accessible. This is definitely not the case for SMIL and SVG, which have been developed with the needs of users with disabilities being addressed right from the start.

Failure to get vendor buy-in: Potential software vendors, such as Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe, etc. are W3C members and have been actively involved in the development of these standards.

Failure by vendors to promote: Tim Berners-Lee, in a post entitled “MS IE “slow in supporting SVG” pointed out that “If you look around at browsers, you’ll find that most of them support scalable vector graphics,” Berners-Lee said. “I’ll let you figure out which one has been slow in supporting SVG.”  The lack of SVG is all Microsoft’s fault, you may feel.  However an article on “SMIL Standards and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, 7, and 8” touches on some of the complexities of vendor support for rapidly developing standards. As described in this article other vendors have their doubts regarding the the effectiveness of W3C standards such as SMIL, with the Macromedia Product Manager stating that Macromedia “[doesn’t] feel that SMIL integrates well with HTML and the current evolution of the DOM, SMIL is a decent standard for synchronizing audio and video, but isn’t really a multimedia standard. And it does not enable an author to create a rich, interactive multimedia presentation with any kind of sophistication.”

Lack of interest by the users: And perhaps Stephen Downes is correct when he says that such standards don’t do what people want.  Do we have real evidence that there is sufficient interest in these standards for the market place to support the standards?

Insufficient motivation to change existing working practices: Even if there is evidence that there is a marketplace for SMIL and SVG are the benefits sufficient for users to be willing to change their existing approaches, purchase new tools, training staff, etc.

I think it is clear that W3C have failed to deliver a solution which is being widely deployed.  Now this may not be of concern to W3C – they may regard their role as simply developing standards and are happy to leave it to the marketplace to adopt or reject the standards. However as user organisations we can’t take this stance.  So we will need to ensure that we have learnt form the failures of well-promoted standards to have any significant impact. Or perhaps we should simply be prepared to wait for a longer period for new standards to gain impact.  Perhaps we may find greater take-up of SMIL and SVG, with the mobile market providing the arena for the standards to demonstrate their worth.

Or have I got this wrong and will I find a horde of happy SMIL and SVG users commenting on this post with examples of how they are successfully using the standards?