Standards, Protocols, and Platforms

Sep 19, 2022

Standards are often protocols, and protocols breed platforms. Startups often chase standards setting as a way to achieve platform status.

I came across an interesting article on standards/platforms by Michael Mignano, The Standards Innovation Paradox (and a rebuttal The Standards Innovation Paradox: is it real?). I don't feel as strongly as the authors do about RSS, although I've collected my thoughts on RSS.

Technical standards and protocols are not that generalizable. There's a significant difference between a standard far down the stack (e.g., TCP/IP) and something further up the stack like the Matrix Protocol for decentralized messaging. But a few thoughts.

  • Standards are slow-moving by design. This is because the more users a standard supports, the slow it must move.
  • Infrastructure platforms that aren't extensible enough will see themselves become standards, whether as an implementation-turned-standard or as something new. For example, many of Docker's behaviors later became container standards (e.g., image format, registry protocol, runtime).
  • Historically, the successful corporate approach to standards has been the Embrace/Extend/Extinguish playbook.
  • Startups chasing standards will usually find it challenging to monetize directly. Instead, using them to commoditize your complement (standards create commodity products) is generally more strategic.
  • Popular formats like PDF and DOCX were proprietary for decades.
  • Backward compatibility is a stopgap for non-standards to create long-lasting trust.