The Switzerland of standards

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10/02/2008
The folks at Milestone today pointed me to a blog entry by John Blem, their CTO, regarding this whole standards issue that's been getting a lot of attention (from me, anyway), with the PSIA, SIA, and ONVIF (Sony-Axis-Bosch) initiatives. I'm going to ignore for a moment that he's linking to John Honovich's standards post and not one of mine (look how big a person I am (actually, you all know how petty I am. Who am I kidding?)) to get things started, and point out a few interesting things Blem has to say about the whole situation. Why do we care what Milestone thinks? Well, without throwing my weight behind anyone (and I'm pretty skinny, anyway), I have to say that I hear more often about Milestone's "openness" than anyone else's. That's just a fact. So, here goes: Almost daily, I get questions with regard to standards being set on the camera or hardware side. Specifically, asking me why Milestone as an open platform company is not leading the charge for one of these standardizations. My answer is always the same: As an open platform software provider, we will adopt any standards emerging, but obviously we do not want to take sides when we plan to support everything. It is more important for us to follow all these standards instead of creating them. But, jeez, doesn't that cost Milestone an awful lot of money, having to constantly adapt to all of the new ways of sending information about? Wouldn't the company be well-served if there was one universal way of communicating? And I guess there's another implicit argument here as well: That there is a need to take sides. Theoretically, there could be one universal standards body that everyone got behind and there wouldn't be a need to take sides. And, also theoretically, if Milestone was active in that one universal body, wouldn't that help provide it validation? Couldn't taking sides also end the sides-taking? I'm not sure about the answers to those questions. Then John goes into a well-reasoned discussion of who benefits from standards and why. I agree with about 99 percent of it so I won't reproduce it here. Just go read it. Done with that? Okay, back to the blogging: On the analytics side, you see standards being driven as well. I cannot be sure of the motivation, but the stance that Milestone takes on this is that you cannot standardize something that has not been invented yet. What I mean by this is that the sheer speed of innovation on that particular side is moving so rapidly that it is impossible to standardize everything at this point. Eventually, I think we will see a polarized market in both the analytic and camera side where we have value-driven products versus price-driven products. This will ultimately lead to a subsequent shakeout in the market. I agree with a lot of this, but I think this is where the standards talk often gets confusing for integrators and end users and I think there's a point to be made here. Sure, analytics are still very young and I agree that you can't standardize before the largest part of the innovation happens, but I don't think using standards (here being equated with price-driven) and having differentiating features (value-driven) are diametrically opposed. I've had it explained to me a couple of times that, for example, you can use standard H.264 encoding that could be played back on any Qucktime viewer, but that doesn't limit you from having all kinds of cool features that appear in your playback and not in other people's playbacks. So, you're using a standard way of communicating, but you have better stuff to say than other people. We're standardized on the English language, in general, but some people are better talkers/writers than others, right? I don't think that's as bad an analogy as it might initially seem. One could wonder, however, why companies claiming to seek a global standard do not join an already established standards committee instead of launching a competing one. To me, it seems contradictory to have several standards driven at the same time when the overall message is that there should be a common standard. Maybe it is more important to be in the driver seat instead of trying to get as many companies as possible represented under one common standard committee? Well, I think maybe John has Bingo here, but it's also still very early in this process. It's not impossible that these competing (and only we observers say they're competing - it's not necessarily true they're working at cross purposes) entities will eventually come together to work out the best standard for the industry as a whole. That's kind of where I have my hopes pinned. I'll be seeing ONVIF's news at Essen next week, so stay posted.