IBM to shun 'rogue' standards bodies

An IBM-convened group of standards experts calls for more transparency in standards-setting processes and intellectual property practices.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
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IBM thinks it's time to clean up standards bodies.

The computing giant on Tuesday said that it will review its membership in existing standards bodies and withdraw from those that are not sufficiently transparent in their processes and intellectual property practices.

IBM convened a group of experts this summer to diagnose problems in the "standards community." It published the group's findings on Tuesday.

Participating in standards bodies is fraught with uncertainty and unpredictability, an IBM representative said on Tuesday. Because of "bad behavior" among participants, there is a risk that developing countries will shun existing groups and create their own product standards, he said.

Product incompatibilities are fairly common, such as competing formats for high-definition DVDs. But standards are becoming increasingly important, touching the health care, public safety, and industrial sectors of the economy, IBM said.

Standards Ecma International was harshly criticized by IBM and other companies earlier this year for its role in standardizing Office Open XML, Microsoft Office-derived file formats.

Microsoft succeeded in having Open XML standardized by Ecma International and then the ISO (International Organization for Standardization). It was an effort to appeal to governments and large business customers concerned with long-term document retention.

There was active lobbying on both sides of the debate in the run-up to the vote with a number of national standards bodies complaining that the specification was not appropriately vetted.

No employees of Microsoft appear to have participated in the IBM-led standards process review.

In the past, IBM, too, has been accused of choosing standards bodies to further its commercial purposes. There have been a number of instances where rival vendors developed essentially the same technology and then submitted redundant specifications to standards groups.

In the case of Web services specifications earlier this decade, IBM and Microsoft executives sketched out a wide range of interoperability standards that were further developed in a standards body--a process that many competitors complained was not sufficiently open.

IBM's representative said that Big Blue's review of its standards membership and procedures is not linked to a specific instances, like Open XML's certification. Rather, it's part of a more fundamental review of standard body behavior which it is committing to, with the hope that other companies will do as well.

The IBM representative said that it's "quite possible" that the company will withdraw from some standards bodies. IBM singled out the World Wide Web Consortium as a group with good procedures.

The tenets of its standards policy are these:

• Begin or end participation in standards bodies based on the quality and openness of their processes, membership rules, and intellectual property policies.

• Encourage emerging and developed economies to both adopt open global standards and to participate in the creation of those standards.

• Advance governance rules within standards bodies that ensure technology decisions, votes, and dispute resolutions are made fairly by independent participants, protected from undue influence.

• Collaborate with standards bodies and developer communities to ensure that open software interoperability standards are freely available and implementable.

• Help drive the creation of clear, simple and consistent intellectual property policies for standards organizations, thereby enabling standards developers and implementers to make informed technical and business decisions.