Daniel Lemire's blog

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Should Academia care for standards?

In the December 2006 edition of IEEE Computer, Simone Santini, from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid asks “Standards: What Are They Good For?” The gist of his argument is that using concepts like XML in Computer Science is harmful. He argues that there is no such thing as XML technologies since XML, like all standards, is nothing but a rather slimy mix of politics and industrial concerns. He says that no W3C standard is deserving of a Computer Science paper. (Does he know that W3C never issued a standard?)

Why? Mostly because, “having academia operate on industrial principles makes about as much sense as having the industry operate on academic ones.” Interestingly, he argues that if Computer Science had been as focused on standards 40 years ago as it is now, we would still be programming in Fortan and Cobol on OS/360 operating systems.

You see the problem in his argument? First, academia should not operate on industrial principles, but yet, somehow, academic research is meant to lead to industrial progress (such as Java, C++ and Windows XP?).

I like the guy, for sure, just because he dares to publish this in IEEE Computer… an engineering publication. Do you know people more obsessed by standards than engineers? He is not going to win a popularity contest and I am amazed he managed to get this opinion piece to press.

Here are some arguments I would like to submit to him:

  • There is zero evidence that having researchers interested by standards, such as people studying XML, is having a harmful effect on the pace of technology. It may harm some theoretical research work, but I seriously doubt it.
  • Computer Science, as a branch of Mathematics, should not care about XML or the W3C. But academic research does not stop at Computer Science. Information Technology is an increasingly important discipline and it cares very much about Web standards. Moreover, Computer Science is sometimes considered and engineering discipline (think about “software engineering”) and engineers need to care about standards . Finally, Computer Science should be an empirically discipline and not just a branch of Mathematics, and in this respect, it should care about standards and study them from a scientific point of view (maybe to improve them!). For example, XML is a bit more than just an “unranked labeled tree”: it is one of the most interesting phenomenon in Information Technology that I know of. Choosing not to study XML would be like choosing not to study the Web.
  • Not all standards are ugly compromises. It often goes down that way, but some standards are fun and interesting.

So, my answer is clear: yes, academia should care about standards, despite Simone Santini‘s point of view.

(Disclaimer: I do not think that any of my papers have been standards-centered, and most, if not all, are not standards-aware. I do not generally write papers about XML or XQuery or XHTML. My point though is that such work is perfectly legitimate.)