Four Pillars: Thinking about standards in an enterprise architecture context

In late 2004, we had quite a kerfuffle where I work, trying to decide what to do about Firefox. For sure it wasn’t the standard browser. For sure, if we blocked its use, it would not become the standard browser. So like everyone else we ummed and aahed, I spoke to my boss, and we agreed the following:

We would not support Firefox. What this meant was that no application would need to change as a result of Firefox being introduced. What this meant was that if anything went wrong, the “user” could not call up the support department and get it fixed. Firefox was unsupported.

We would not ban Firefox. People would be allowed to download Firefox, but, as per the no-support statement, they could not divert any resources towards making applications work in Firefox.

We would keep a careful eye on Firefox, reviewing matters and concerns over time. And with learning.

That’s what we decided.

Over time, as Firefox grew in popularity, it got better. The market made it better. The community made it better. Soon, I guess, it will become a standard. [And in the meantime, I will continue to play with Flock :-) ]

I’ve been thinking about this ever since that day in October 2004. And I wondered.

I wondered about standards-agnosticism. Could we start building systems that will work regardless of the “standards” in place, that are “unsupported”, that need minimal tweaking of the existing systems base, that are selected by the consumer, that are improved upon by the community, that stabilise through usage?

When Open Source meets the Beta mindset, maybe that’s what will happen. We will have more and more unsupported apps, because they work. And they improve. And they stabilise. And they don’t need supporting.

I wonder. There’s something peculiarly dissatisfying about having to change everything just in order to make one thing work. And knowing it won’t work anyway, that all we are doing is pandering to higher support costs, more lock-in points, more expensive ways of freeing up our own data.

Are standards just a euphemism for Officially Sanctioned Lock-ins?

I wonder.

6 thoughts on “Four Pillars: Thinking about standards in an enterprise architecture context”

  1. I think they are. All the examples of “standards” I know of are put in place to reduce costs. That said I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a study that really concluded that buying 3000 computers from one vendor is cheaper than buying 300 from 10 vendors. Or that “locking down” users doesn’t diminish their productivity while it may lower helpdesk staffing costs.

    Often people say “well we can’t support chaos.” But maybe that’s just wrong thinking now that Internet standards, SOA, Firefox and other open source commodity products are broadly available.

    I think the infrastructure is really changing but still wonder what will happen inside the Enterprise. They still seem stuck in the 1980’s to me versus what companies like Google and Firefox are doing.

  2. I guess what I was trying to say, but in a bolshie way, was that enterprise battles are now between opensource and community standards and vendor standards. Not-adhering-to-a-vendor-standard-yet-working is the same as working-with-open-and-community-standards. At least to me.

    I’m working on another post on this subject which may help clarify this. Thanks anyway Kris.

  3. JP – I had been thinking about this and other “intranet 2.0” related issues this week while revisting a blog piece I wrote last year, called the Intranet Imperative, here http://chieftech.blogspot.com/2005/06/intranet-imperative-part-1.html . The idea of “software written above the level of the single device” that Tim O’Reilly refers to in his Web 2.0 explaination comes to mind in respect to your post – see http://www.synthesist.net/writing/onleavingms.html for the original.

    Unfortunately enterprises have been caught out in their intranet 1.0 approach by picking one browser application and building on top of it. But as we will increasingly want to extend the intranet beyond the desktop PC browser and borrow from the Web 2.0 this will need to change. I also believe I’ve heard predictions from Gartner and the like that some enterprises will tell employees to supply their own computing equipment (of their choice), so even more so will the idea of enterprise standards need to move to a different layer of the system.

    What do you think?

  4. Simple distinction is that de-facto standards are likely to be Officially Sanctioned Lock-ins but reduce costs of diversity at the risk of increased costs due to monopoly.

    De-jure standards have a chance of promoting competition leading to lower procurement costs but potentially higher support costs; but also have a risk of being agreed by a monopolistic cartel.

    It’s not inherently open vs proprietary standards. Open Source has its own de-facto standards (e.g. the Netscape bookmark format). But the key differentiator is the standardisation process itself, and the licence that the information is released under.

    IETF and W3C have been good at promoting open standards that are free (liberated and cost) for all. Other standards bodies have gone down the proprietary documentation route (BSI, ISO) which restricts adoption. Remember OSI?

  5. So you’re saying that the fact that our organisation decided *not* to support Firefox was part of the reason for the growth in its usage. The story being that (1) we allowed it to be used, (2) it had value because it encapsulated useful functionality and it required no support (i.e. if it had required support and none was available it would not have had value), (3) its usage grew because it had value.

    So far I think I follow and if so then I agree. I am a little suspicious of the corollary that we should not divert resources into making things work with Firefox. Although there is a chicken-and-egg problem here I believe that Firefox represents a standard that should be the core target. Diverting resources into making things work with Internet Explorer is a necessary evil that we must tolerate for a little while longer.

  6. We’re on the same page. The perfect world is where we plug things in without incremental effort; since we are not there as yet, I am suggesting that emergence plays will allow the market to set the standard, and that resource is applied to the things that matter. You know my views on diverting resources to make things work with IE already. For sure I am not saying that the resources we save on Firefox should be used for IE. What I am saying is that Firefox adoption should not attract incremental resource until it needs to, and that we could use those resources to build business value elsewhere. Not in IE.

Let me know what you think