A New Home for Standards


If there is any hope at all for computer standards- if we are ever to have a standard Cobol, a standard tape drive interface, a standard data description format we must take the sponsorship of X3 out of the hands of the computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association (CBEMA).

At best, CBEMA, and its European counterpart Ecma, functions in the standards field only reluctantly and fitfuly. When guided by honest and vigorous hands, by a Charlie Philips here or a Dara Hekimi in Geneva, some small progress is possible. But work so important should not depend nearly so heavily on the personalities in charge; it should be organized to continue when leaders retire or move on.

CBEMA is the creature of the giant manufacturers, IBM and Univac and National Cash and Burroughs and Control Data and Honeywell. They own it outright; they jerk the cords and the pupets dance not just the CBEMA staff, but the few committee and subcommittee people who are not already directly employed by an association member. And these giants are enemies of standards. Each fears loss of market position to the others, and especyally to the plug-compatible boys and the mini wolfpack. They fear small software firms will sell packages so much more efficient than the ones they give away, that applications will run much faster, and their hardware be cut back. They regard standards, and support of X3 through CBEMA, as just one more marketing weapon: something to outwit the competitors with, something to further reduce customer efficiency.

The competitive computer Industry Association (CIA) would be a far better sponsor, for its members - the small hardware firms, expecially plug-to-plug peripheral companies - want to hold the big boys still and chisel away of their market. But even there, each member wants its product to have a superset of the features of all competitive products, and that way lies a crazy spiral, not a standard (watch the mad escaladation of minicomputer specifications)!

A better choice by far would be a user-dominated outfit such as the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (Afips). But sponsorship of X3 alone, not counting other standards committees, would cost at least $ 200,000 a year. That would soak up the conference profits completely, even in good years. Moreover, the National computer Conference depends very heavily on the good will of CBEMA members. I was on the board of the NCC; I know!

I believe we need a Computer Standards Institute, supported by direct memberships of user installations, governed by its contributing members. Seed money might come from CIA or from Afips, or from a foundation, or from a congeries of existing specialized user organizations like banks or service bureaus or state gouverments. I believe the American National Standards Institute could be persuaded to hand over X3 to such a sponsor. We need computer standards badly; we need an honest and vigorous sponsor; we need a clean break!