Open Standards Can Change Everything

Published on: Mar 15 2013 by Aaron Mason

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February’s San Francisco Technology Salon centered around current technology challenges in the developing world. What are our current needs? What’s holding technology back? What should we be looking for in a “perfect” solution?

The discussion was lively and the participants were wonderfully engaged, with topics ranging from hardware lifespan to power usage. Depending on your industry there were a number of potential takeaways: perhaps mobile developers will be looking to Ubuntu tablets; perhaps tech companies in the valley will start leaning towards a social enterprise model.

My observation, however, was that there were a lot of conversations around durability. And not just physical durability, but the idea that stability in technology platforms is important. From battery life to sustainable profit models, the notion that innovations should last longer seemed a constant theme.

Durable Is…

Fail early, fail often” is ubiquitous in San Francisco to the point of cliche, and with so much attention being paid to the pivoting startup culture and disruptive technologies the concept of durability gets little visibility. In some cases the suggestion of technology that’s built to last can be turned around to sound like an invitation for obsolescence.

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Photo: HeartlessMachine.com

To be sure, physically durable devices are important. From an economic standpoint the cheapest phone to fix it the one you don’t have to, and it’s hard to overstate the value of a well-built piece of hardware that simply works when you need it to. But at what point does software outpace hardware? Two years? Five? That may be enough for a single device, but what about an ecosystem?

Perhaps the answer lies in software. Durable operating systems are definitely one step closer to a solution as a single OS can span multiple hardware device iterations over time. iOS was released in 2007, followed by Android a year later, both of which have legacy support for the oldest applications, but both may soon be on the decline. Even if they do persist, constant updates and patches still have the potential to render applications and workflows obsolete in a few years.

So what’s left? Interestingly enough, the answer I found most compelling started out as a discussion about making African technology more accessible through open source. Would the innovation and creativity outweigh the lack of standards? How useful are new solutions that can’t be shared or scaled? What’s the real limiting factor here?

Time to Standardize

Ultimately what may be needed is not more hackable platforms, but more open standards. If hardware runs on software, software runs on standards. At the very core of the failing, pivoting, disruptive technologies that define Silicon Valley innovation are well-defined, stable, durable specifications that provide a foundation for growth. PDF, MPEG, IRC and JPEG have been around for over twenty years. SMS was defined nearly thirty years ago and is powering some of the most innovative developments in the world today (Twitter, M-PESA). Let’s not even get started with HTML.

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The effect isn’t limited to new innovations. As a glaring example of where the lack of open standards is currently hindering development, look to this quote from the opening address of the The Southern African Telecommunications Networks and Applications Conference 2005, by then Minister of Science and Technology, Mosibudi Mangena:

“The tsunami that devastated South Eastern Asian countries and the north-eastern parts of Africa, is perhaps the most graphic, albeit unfortunate, demonstration of the need for global collaboration, and open ICT standards. The incalculable loss of life and damage to property was exacerbated by the fact that responding agencies and non-governmental groups were unable to share information vital to the rescue effort. Each was using different data and document formats. Relief was slowed, and coordination complicated.”

A simple Google search reveals an array of additional cases for additional open standards, from smart power grids to virtualization and cloud computing. Openness@Microsoft is an ongoing forum entirely devoted to this idea.

With properly defined standards, both hardware and software become irrelevant and innovation can happen with longevity in mind. Does Vimeo care if your phone is made by HTC? Does Gmail mind if the person you’re sending email to is running Ubuntu? Can you think of anywhere that SMS won’t go? And it’s not simply about making the next few devices talk to one another – it’s about defining new ways to share anything.

The question then becomes, what would these new standards look like? Personal data profiles? Physical locations? Financial instruments? Editable documents? What kinds of open standards could change the world, and what would it take to get them implemented?

More importantly, what would be most useful to you?

Interested in being part of the discussion in person? Sign up to get invited to the next Technology Salon today.

Aaron Mason is a technology and development expert with experience in design, analytics, ICT and disaster response. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Mason
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