Standards are like sausages” suggested Charles McCathieNevile at the OzeWAI 2009 conference. “I like sausages” he went on to say “but I’m not keen on exploring too closely how they’re made“.

This was a wonderful metaphor which appealed to several Twitterers at the conference, including scenariogirl and RuthEllison.

A quick Google suggests the origin of this saying is “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” by Otto von Bismarck (although this origin is disputed) with the Healthcare Standards blog applying it to standards-making in a post on The Making of Standards and Sausages published in August 2008.

Paul Downey, an advocate of Web Architecture at BT and formerly BT’s Chief Web Services Architect, chair of the W3C XML Schema Patterns for Databinding Working Group and BT representative at various organisations including OASIS and the WS-I, may has some sympathy with this view judging by the title of his talk at the QCon conference  “Standards are Great, but Standardisation is a Really Bad Idea“. The abstract for this talk is worth quoiting in full:

Standards arise from consensus between competitors signaling maturity in a marketplace. A good standard can ensure interoperability and assist portability, allowing the switching of suppliers. A widely adopted standard can create new markets, and impose useful constraints which in turn foster good design and innovation. Standards are great, and as the old joke goes, that’s why we have so many of them!

If standards represent peace, then formal standardisation can be war! Dark, political, expensive and exclusive games played out between large vendors often behind closed doors. There are better ways to forge consensus and build agreements and the notion of a committee taking often a number of years to writing a specification, especially in the absence of implementation experience appears archaic in today’s world of Agile methods, test driven development, open source, Wikis and other Web base collaborations.

This talk will draw upon Paul’s personal experiences forged in the wonderful world of XML and Web service standardisation, examine the risks of premature standardisation, unnatural constraints, partial implementations and open extensions, puzzle how to avoid cloud computing lock-in, and contrast formal activities with lightweight open processes as exemplified by open source, Microformats, OpenID, OAuth and other Web conventions being ratified through open, lightweight, continuous agreement.

Now I’ve heard it suggested that in order to avoid choosing the wrong standard, you simply need to look at the worthiness of the organisation which produced the standard, perhaps on the assumption that a reputable standards-making organisation is like an approve sausage-making company. But as Paul Downey suggests, and Keith Boone seems to confirm in his post on the Healthcare blog,  the unsavoury standardisation processes take place in an organisation responsible for delivering globally-accepted standards such as HTML, CSS and XML.

Selecting the standards that will not only work as specified but will be widely accepted and supported in the marketplace is not an easy task.  And it is good to see that evidence of such concerns is now becoming more widely available.