Some Thoughts on Standards and Dare Obasanjo

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I’m a big fan of negative gestures, something I’ve talked about over a long period of time. What I mean by that is the power that can be derived from not saying something, not liking something, not tipping a hat to something, etc. I’ve used (jokingly with a smidgen of truth) the John Dvorak test, where if John comes out strongly against something (blogging, podcasting, Twitter) it’s likely a buy signal.

Factor in that John is a serial instigator whose editorial model is to stretch the truth to elucidate a more fundamental underlying truth. This also pays well historically for John. But nonetheless Dvorak is one of my most reliable negative signals. To reiterate for those who haven’t followed my theories on attention and gestures, negative nodes produce a much greater opportunity for ruling out memes and threads of discussion than most modern aggregators, which use last-in first-out UIs or explicit voting to push things up the priority list. Negative thought leaders wipe out large swaths of nonsense across many domains.

Aggregating those negative gesturers would further improve efficiency, by triangulating various attitudes into a synthetic consensus. The Gillmor Gang is such a mechanism. These supernodes are fairly static in their evolution, as it takes time to acquire and maintain some sense of stability among these volatile creatures. Witness how difficult it is to keep Arrington amused long enough to get into an enterprise discussion, or Calacanis engaged enough to have him not retire from yet another sector of new media.

The only option to increase the flow of negative nodes into the system is to move vertically, or deeper into the disciplines that underly the vendor and startup sports that attract most of the raw attention. It is here that the Open Web Foundation appears on the scene, a honeypot for attracting negative gesturers. The brainchild of David Recordon and emergent standards artists such as Chris Messina, the group seems to have a strategy of reusing lessons learned in the emergence of OpenID and OAuth as a series of best practices to inform a wider range of ad hoc open standards.

In doing so, it has attracted the vitriol of Dare Obasanjo, the brilliant Microsoft engineer who has gone from being the most outspoken Redmond blogger to the most partisan one. Obasanjo retired from the blogosphere some months ago, seemingly frustrated with the Vallywaggish nature of the conversation at the time, and has recently reemerged first on Twitter and then again on his blog. In addition to his knowledgeable commentary on issues of sustained interest to him, he has added a curious tone of anger that mostly finds its target in Microsoft competitors, most consistently Google.

Dare’s recent post on OWF follows a Twitter pointer at a Google Groups discussion by many of the players. Obasanjo sounds neutral: “Open Web Foundation is not a standards body.But it wants to do the same things they do only hipper.” But his post almost immediately delves into the kind of political insinuations that seem to fuel his return to blogging, quoting “Google evangelist Dion Almaer as rationalizing the need for yet another “standards” (Dare’s quotes) organization by providing “justification for why existing Web standards organizations do not meet their needs.”

Specifically, Almaer mentions “pay to play” orgs such as the W3C and Oasis, as well as what Dare calls OWF spin about “one off organizations like the Open ID foundation and the WHATWG that are dedicated to a specific technology.” It now becomes clear that Obasanjo thinks there’s no need for a newer hipper replacement for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which he suggests already has proved its worth by providing RFCs for the browser content transport (HTTP) and what he calls the RSS reader that consumes his Atom feed.

Never mind that “RSS” is a specification that never would have seen its successful penetration into all manner of media and platforms if not for ad hoc support from people like Dare Obasanjo, who in his previous incarnations was a singular balanced voice in calling for rational and fair analysis of the benefits of open technology (XML) and its derivatives. Take this post from 2004:

The value of RSS is fairly self evident to me but it seems that given the amount of people who keep wanting to reinvent the wheel it may not be as clear to others. As someone who used to work on core XML technologies at Microsoft, the value of XML was obvious to me. It allowed developers to agree to use the same data format for information interchange which led to a proliferation of a wide and uniform set of tools for working with data formats. XML is not an optimal format for most of the tasks it is used for but it more than makes up for this with the plethora of tools and technologies that exist for processing XML.

Understand the context and particularly the political risk Dare was incurring with his unbiased view – this was not an evangelist talking openly inside Microsoft about technologies not controlled by Redmond but an engineer whose voice stood out markedly from most who came before and since. He concluded:

We need less data interchange formats not more. It is better for content producers, better for end users and better for developers of applications that use these formats. Existing problems in syndication should focus on how to make the existing formats work for us instead of inventing new formats.

Vive la RSS.

Replace the word “syndication” in the last sentence with “open standards” and we might see how Dare could support what OWF is trying to do. Surely there are many reasons to doubt the effectiveness of Yet Another Standards Group, but surely the folks who have squired OpenID and OAuth through the thickets have the right to be given a chance to share their experiences and hard-won successes with the rest of the community. That is, without a partisan and petty attack such as the one Obasanjo leaves as his contribution:

I can understand that a bunch of kids fresh out of college are ignorant of the IETF and believe they have to reinvent the wheel to Save the Open Web but I am surprised that Google which has had several of it’s employees participate in the IETF processes which created RFC 4287, RFC 4959, RFC 5023 and RFC 5034 would join in this behavior. Why would Google decide to sponsor a separate standards organization that competes with the IETF that has less inclusive processes than the IETF, no clear idea of how corporate sponsorship will work and a yet to be determined IPR policy?

That’s just fucking weird.

For the same reasons that RSS emerged. Because it needed to. Obasanjo is consistent across the years in his desire not to reinvent the wheel, but today he refuses to support not reinventing the OpenID/OAuth wheel because it has Google’s fingerprints on it, among others. That’s just fucking weird.

  • http://www.simonbisson.co.uk Simon Bisson

    I think you’re misreading Dare there, and heading off on an irrelevant tangent.

    I read the same blog post as you, and what Dare seemed to be saying was simply that because there was already an existing open standards body that fulfilled all the requirements of the OWG, that there was no need to create a new standards group.

    (Also, it’s HTTP he’s talking about as the transport mechanism for RSS, not RSS itself.)

    What it all boils down to is the IETF is the wheel that doesn’t need to be reinvented, not OpenID/OAuth. Taking these protocols to the IETF is the right thing to do, not creating an un-focused redundant “standards” body.

    I have to say I agree with him.

  • Stephen Gazoogle

    Steve: were you AND Nick stoned for a week?
    How could you leave us alone that long?

  • http://epeus.blogspot.com Kevin Marks

    The OWF isn’t trying to reinvent the IETF, it’s trying to provide a template for the new class of bottom-up open web standards like OpenID and OAuth to reuse the same kinds of Intellectual Property disclaimers. “An Apache Foundation for Specs” is another good summary. Steve is understanding this better than Dare or Simon here.

  • Steve Gillmor

    Simon

    I understand how both of you feel, just don’t agree with you and do agree with Recordon et al who find the need for a further layer here. And since I feel that Obasanjo performed similar services in the layer around RSS, along with others including myself, that his anitpathy toward Google is irrelevant and clouds his otherwise excellent judgment.

  • http://www.simonbisson.co.uk Simon Bisson

    @Kevin and @Steve

    I really don’t see the need for another layer. If what’s required is an Apache or Eclipse Foundation for specs, then that’s exactly what the IETF has been for the last couple of decades. RFCs are clear, open and (above all) easy to turn into implementations.

    Complexity breeds confusion. If we want an open web, then we need to simplify things, not add extra layers of specifications that need to be untangled from the W3C, OASIS, the WHATWG, and the OWF before anyone writes a line of code.

    If there’s a need for a OWF, it’s not as another specification body. What the web really needs is a test case body, one that can authoritatively define the test cases that any and all web applications and protocol implementations need to pass before they can be said to be open.

    I used to be an architect. It was an awful lot easier to write the specs and argue over the fine details than it was to actually define the tests that would prove that my teams’ elegant designs would actually work. Instead of wasting more pixels and cycles on specifications, let’s test the web and make sure it’s really working.

    Then we can really build an open web, one where everything just works together.

  • Franci Penov

    What needs does the OWF meet that IETF can’t meet? And why are the folks behind OpenID and OAth hesitant to join IETF?

  • Martin F

    For what it’s worth, Dare has been on a ‘Ha – look at what those kids are doing on my lawn’ vibe for a while Steve – you’re not imagining or misreading him.

    He’s probably changed over time from his quote in 2004 from a brilliant engineer with an independent attitude to someone that wants to carve out an actual difference-making career at Redmond.

    To project on to him (wow, is he going to hate this) I would think that his ‘What Google Has Done Wrong This Week’ repeated style is coming out of the fact that he is frustrated by (a) what his ‘side’ are lamely doing and (b) his lack of progression in getting things done inside Redmond.

    It must be killing him that the Facebook/Google/GoodPressNew2.0 young crews are setting the agenda nowadays. Long gone are the days of any coherent Microsoft strategy for the web (sorry, don’t buy the Mesh vision yet, I’m an ex-Groove user) and the ‘MS Live’ stuff is the ‘Ford circa 1980s’ of the innovation curve – Popular until people get passionate and understand the other choices.

    I wait for the old Dare to come back with an contribution rather than just seeing him set up his ‘I don’t speak for Microsoft, but here’ what’s wrong with Google’ repeated recordings.

  • http://www.25hoursaday.com/weblog Dare Obasanjo

    >the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which he suggests already has proved its worth by providing RFCs for the browser content transport (HTTP) and what he calls the RSS reader that consumes his Atom feed.

    It must have been a busy week, I’d almost forgotten about OWF hubbub from over the weekend.

    Anyway, I often wonder why people bother to subscribe to my blog if they aren’t going to take the time to read what I wrote or lack the technical background to understand what I’m talking about.

    The IETF was where Atom (RFC 4287) and the Atom Publishing Protocol (RFC 5023) were standardized. I’m sorry if my post was written in a way that made it hard to understand that point.

  • Steve Gillmor

    Dare

    Typical that you would hide behind the engineer mantle. Perhaps you don’t understand that your bias distorts your acknowledged brilliance and formative role in the technologies you have championed at great risk to yourself and the admiration of those who you say didn’t read every word you wrote or don’t have the technical background to understand your points. Kevin Marks above seems to have the prerequisite attributes. Go slime him.

  • Steve Gillmor

    Martin F

    Dare’s response suggests you might be right about some of the motivation, but I disagree with you about Mesh and wonder whether Dare touches that group or not.

  • http://twitter.com/callingbull Trebor Elbocs

    Steve,

    Sounds like *you* are the one being the jackass here. Dare’s response sounded reasonable while you come off as “go away”! FAIL.

  • David S

    Dare’s not an engineer, he’s a program manager. I find that people who confuse these two very distinct roles tend to be confused in their thinking overall.

    Dare isn’t antipathetic towards Google. Rather, he understands they’re the new Microsoft. The fact that Google gets away with stuff that used to get Microsoft in trouble must rankle him immensely. So he calls bullshit on it. And maybe is a little jealous.

    If, fifteen years ago, Microsoft had created an “open standards” group for mail and network protocols, can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued? They’re already vilified every time they work with an existing standards body.

    Meanwhile, Google and Apple have very successfully co-opted the Open Source movement to achieve their equivalent competitive agendas. You’re kidding yourself if you believe Apple does things like Bonjour and FireWire, or Google does things like OpenSocial and OAuth as some kind of philanthropic gestures. Microsoft has just never figured out how to do this. They can’t even get the naming right — ActiveSync instead of OpenSync, OLE instead of OpenDoc, etc.

    Dare’s right to call bullshit on Google’s new OWF “standards” group. Kevin claims the OWF isn’t reinventing the IETF… but then says it’s about all the same things the IETF is about. With a smaller echo chamber and more control for Google, I guess. Specs as weak as these might have a rough time in a real standards group.

  • Steve Gillmor

    David S

    Describing Dare as an engineer was a mark of respect. I’ll stick with it regardless of his current title.

    As to fifteen years ago, you don’t have to go back that far to remember the Web Services Initiative, a blatantly political “standards” land grab with IBM that sought unsuccessfully to squeeze Sun out.

    I agree that both Apple and Google have employed effective open source strategies and that these are certainly not philanthropic gestures. But Microsoft may very well have figured out how to play this game with Live Mesh. Dare does not do Microsoft a service by tilting even a little jealously at windmills while decrying just the kind of ad hoc standards strategies he so ably supported in earlier less politicized days.

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