IBM Threatens to Take Bat and Ball, Go Home

It isn’t often I have occasion to praise IBM, but they deserve kudos for at least threatening to pull out of formal standards bodies and openly questioning their once-beloved “standards process”:

International Business Machines Corp. will review its membership in the bodies that set common standards for the technology industry and may withdraw from some, potentially undermining the system that makes electronic equipment and software interoperable world-wide.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer maker is expected to announce the review Tuesday, according to company officials. IBM has become frustrated by what it considers opaque processes and poor decision-making at some of the hundreds of bodies that set technical standards for everything from data-storage systems to programming languages, those officials said.

It would be all the more noble a stance if IBM didn’t have decades of culpability in making standards bodies into cesspools of cynical politics and half-baked outputs (incomplete standards being a consultant’s best friend…).  They also lose points for making this move in a fit of pique after losing the Open XML battle.  I guess the appeal of standards dims when you don’t reliably get your way. 

The good news is perhaps IBM has figured out that “standards” are not the high order bit.  They certainly might make greater in-roads against Microsoft Office with an actual product strategy as opposed to just trying to make the Office file formats “illegal”.

Maybe more disconcerting is Microsoft’s embrace of IBM’s long-held comfort with the standards muddle:

A Microsoft spokesman said standards bodies are “invaluable” because they provide “an even and predictable playing field” to the industry. Their decisions reflect the views of a preponderance of members, “not the interests of any single party,” he said.

I will leave it to someone like Gartner to define the lifecycle of a company based on their evolving perspective on standards.  During ascendency, you have better things to do and your vitality and antipathy to standards scares people.  Then, you reach the comfortable, middle-aged embrace of standards, and start hiring employees for their ability to sleep sitting up during standards meetings.  To be followed by the post-partisan-whatever-it-is that IBM is now advocating.  Unless of course this is just a cynical maneuver to improve their position in the standards bodies they are threatening to leave, particularly by lowering membership requirements in order to expand the voting ranks with their allies for the next battle…