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The Case for Standards is Finally Made:
Draws repeated rounds of applause
by Susan Mitchell

How does the most entertaining session get scheduled for the last session of the last day of the JavaOne Conference? My coffee-enhanced alertness had faded, and I was yawning like crazy, but all lethargy vanished when Patrick Curran, chair of the Java Community Process (JCP) program, started speaking. Instead of answering his sassy question head-on ("Who needs standards in an open source world?" BOF-5578), he hurtled through a standards history lesson, illustrated with delightful slides, delivered with dry British wit.

"In the beginning was the Word," he began. Oral language was the first standard, followed by writing and number systems. We take standards for granted because it is impossible to imagine our way of life without them: currency, weights and measures, interfaces of all kinds.

Historical Standards Undergird Modern Life
The railway changed many things. Distances could be traveled by rail more quickly now, so the one-minute difference in time for every 12 miles traversed suddenly became noticeable. The Greenwich Mean Time standard was implemented, still in use today. Joseph Whitworth came up with a standard for screw threads, now known as British Standard Whitworth (BSW), which railway companies quickly adopted. The use of interchangeable parts became the norm; it would be disastrous to need a custom part to fix an engine far from headquarters.

Interchangeable parts opened the door for mass production -- more consistent quality produced more quickly at a fraction of the cost b and laid the ground work for the computer age. The first computers (a "difference machine" and an "analytical engine") were designed in the 1800's by Charles Babbage.

Standards battles have been fought (Tesla's AC versus Edison's DC power, VHS versus Beta, and so on) because standards are worth fighting over. Standards organizations have specified what tone Middle C is, how much alcohol is in beer, what sizes of clothing mean, what makes candy "chocolate," how to play sports like cricket, how to classify diseases, and so on.

Standards and Hallmarks Prevent Problems
"If you want to play with the big boys, youb're going to have to standardize," said Patrick. Industrial-strength systems such as Federal Express, airlines, cell phones, and Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are only built on standards. Without standards, true damage can result. For example, in 1904 when out-of-town fire fighters arrived to put out a blaze in Baltimore, they couldn't attach hoses to hydrants because the couplings didn't fit. An investigation revealed that 600 varieties of couplings were in use throughout the country.

To create a proper standard, Patrick says you need a specification, a kind of blueprint that precisely describes how something should be engineered, and a method of testing to verify that what was built matches the intent. Those pieces free consumers to choose from multiple vendors. Hallmarks, first used in England in the 1700's, were stamped on gold and silver items and other articles of trade to indicate their origin, purity, or authenticity. Within Java technology circles, we have our own ways of certifying compliance and expertise.

Standards and Open Source Impact Each Other
The JCP program can benefit and learn from the open source movement, said Patrick. For example, removing barriers to participation and increasing transparency into the process encourages more eyeballs to focus on the project, yielding a more-corrected, higher quality final product. While standards organizations can benefit from open source methods, open source products are usually built on industry standards. The Apache Web Server, the most popular open source software, implements standards created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Open source development is rapid and agile; the establishment of standards can be somewhat slow. But Patrick asked, "Do you really want to fly in an airplane whose wing attachment relies on standards that were knocked out in six weeks?" Standards inspire confidence.

The crowed of 60 plus attendees offered enthusiastic applause at the end of the historical excursion. Patrick had ended fifteen minutes early, and those extra minutes allowed me to dash to a taxi (which I recognized by its standard roof sign), pay the fare (based on a standard rate imposed on all San Francisco cabs), and arrive at the train station with time to spare (my watch was in sync with the station's time.) The train got me to Sunnyvale with no mishap (the rail gauge is consistent throughout my route), and the conductor recognized my 10-punch ticket as valid (identical to all the other 10-punch tickets). The new headphones from the generic mp3 accessory kit I won at the Sun booth fit perfectly (thanks to interchangeable parts) in my Apple 5G iPod, so I listened to my favorite tunes all the way home. Hooray for standards!