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The primary purpose of this project is to provide a forum for developing public standards that can be shared and are generally available as reference works. While in the beginning most of the standards will more than likely be computer media or networking standards, it is not intended to be restricted to just data formats. Standards ranging from wiring diagrams to railroad track gauge standards can be included and encouraged, or even business standards developed along lines similar to ISO 9001.
There is also an enormous need to catalog and reference standards, many of which are scattered throughout the internet in many places. While this is largely outside of the scope of the various Wiki projects, classification and commenting on some of the existing standards documents on the internet certainly would have some value.
Documentation of historical standards is also a major aim of this project. Often these historical standards documents are printed and buried in obscure technical libraries, even being tossed out because the need to reference these materials are not directly apparant to those individuals who posess that documentation. This Wiki project can provide a clearing house for that historical information and help to provide a permanent archive for some of this documentation that may be unnoticed, but when needed is of immense value.
One other final area that this project can be of use is to assist in the development of reverse engineering documentation. The full legality of this goal may have to be challenged, but there are various reasons to legitimately "reverse engineer" or attempt to find out how something works by studying a device (or computer program) and pulling the device apart. This is also related to the historical documentation, but can be for current projects as well. The power of the Wiki projects allows for collaborative efforts to help share findings on a global scale, and to provide a forum to discuss the merits of studying a device in a particular manner.
By their nature, standards documentation generally does not have as many issues regarding points of view or maintaining neutrality as compared to the Wikipedia. There is an overall issue, however, of trying to explain the issues covered by the standard in plain terms so that they can be understood.
Some general policies that should be adopted would be setting up "meta standards" for the formatting of the standards, and "template" glossaries that can be included for broad categories of common types of standardization documents (such as defining TCP/IP, 802.11, RAM, ROM, etc.)
One other issue that may come up is trying to define a cataloging system for new standards that get created within Wikipedia. It is open to debate if this is even necessary, but examples such as the numbering system that ISO uses or the numbers assigned for RFC's is an example of how documents can be cataloged. This should not be an issue anyway, at least until a standard or two developed on Wikistandards achieves a "final" or "released" status. It would be recomended anyway that once a standard achieves this sort of status that it be offered to other standards bodies for more formal ratification, which should be more of a formality if the standard document has been well-written.
Due to the nature of wiki editing, there will be many starts and attempts at new standards. While one of the points of creating this overall project is to encourage new standards groups to form, even informal standards groups, by necessity there will have to be some process established where dead projects can be culled from the main list and placed in a "dead projects" area. While is it possible that somebody can pick up the pieces from one of these dead projects, it is more likely that a whole new standard will be created, with perhaps only references to the older project. The exact length of time a project must be on hiatus before it gets tossed into the dead projects area is something to be debated, but it would be done to help remove clutter from the cataloging process. "Final" standards that achieve some sort of semi-official or official status would not be move to this area, but would be recognized as official standards and would not be subject to culling. The dead projects area is mainly for incomplete or partial standards that still need quite a bit of work before they are usable for the objectives of the standardizing document.
Since classification of standards will also be an issue with this project, ontological issues are also going to be coming up. As mentioned in the goals section, while information technology supporters may be one of the early adopters of this project area, other groups seeking to establish standards documents that are freely available should be encouraged to place their standards documents in this project. The classifying of the documents from the main page should reflect this and computer related standards documents should be separated into a sub-page right from the beginning.
One other area that should be covered regarding editorial standards is the use of patented processes, ideas, or concepts in these documents. Whenever possible, potential patent conflicts should be openly disclosed, and participants in the standards process should also be encouraged to license conflicting patents in a formally signed statement that is sent to the Wikipedia Foundation. While in the past the Wikipedia has had to deal with mainly copyright issues, standards are more likely to encounter other intellectual property issues with patents and trade secret violations. While the "secret" status of something is dubious at best if published on a Wikistandards project, recent court action with the Content Scrambling System of DVD-Video discs suggest that trade secrets may still result in legal action on a project like Wikistandards. Copyright issues should be fairly simple to address and identify, and it should be noted that all ISO standards are copyrighted and not licensed for redistribution, even though often they are copied and sent around the internet. RFC's, on the other hand, are publically available and generally placed into a license compatable (usually) with the GFDL.
While not specifically a goal of Wikistandards, it would be encouraged to have computer-related standards specify formally if the standard is to be compatable with projects using an Open Source/Free Software license. It should be fairly obvious from the nature of the standards document itself, and agreeing to the GFDL for the release of the document would indicate that standards writers would be interested in goals similar to many of the equivalent licenses for software. It is not and should not be assumed, however, and some standards may not be so compatable. Notably, the GIF image standard would have been a document that could have been submitted to Wikisource, but not permitted under some sort of Open Source license. With the expiration of the LZW patent, this is no longer an issue, but something to still consider in the future in regards to other projects.
Existing PD/Open Standards
There are several public domain standards that are available that could be used to either seed this Wiki project or provide a basis for extending standards into new directions.
The most notable group of public domain standards is the Request For Comments (RFCs) that forms the fundamental group of documentation for the internet. While it would be foolish to simply reproduce these documents that are amply mirrored and spread around the internet in fairly permanent archives, there could be some value in trying to decipher some of the very terse technical documentation and try to make it more understandable. In addition, and this is a hope of sorts, if there is a desire to try and develop a new RFC document it could be started with Wikistandards and vetted with errors and typos checked well before the formal RFC process begins.
Another major public domain standards group is the W3C Group, the organization that defines standards that control web browsers and web servers. These are very well vetted and widely published standards, so the specific need to have them republished through Wikistandards may be quite low. Still, it is standards of this nature that are what this project is all about.
The "gold standard" for what a very well written standard should be looking like is the Portable Network Graphics Group. This group has done all of their homework and has been written the way a standards document should be written. The PNG standard again may not be very necessary to directly copy even though it is completely consistant with its documentation license to include it with Wikistandards. Still, there is room to include links to this documentation and room to explore new chunk types that can be optional additions to the PNG specification that can be developed through Wikistandards.
One area that does need a serious review and possible inclusion into Wikistandards would be many of the data formats referenced at Wotsit's Formats. While many of these have been copied by Paul Oliver, the original developer of this web site, several of these standards documents are scattered all over various places on the internet. If PNG is the gold standard, you can look at several of the file formats listed on this web site and see some truly awful messes. Nothing against Paul, because he is just the messenger and cataloger, but some of these data formats can clearly be rewritten with much higher editorial standards and would provide a source of work that would, by itself, provide over a hundred man-years of effort for people interested in adding this to Wikistandards.
Another group that has been organized is the Free Standards Group. This is a relatively young project that does however appear to be gaining some momentum. I would imagine that some synergy between this organization and people working on Wikisource could eventually develop, along the lines similar to Nupedia and Wikipedia. Wikistandards would be the country cousins with the broken car in the front yard, but the result could still be a development of international standards that would have some value.
There are other existing public domain or freely available standards documentation. Also by its nature many organizations that prepare standards documentation are glad to find distribution channels for its documentation, so obtaining copyright clearance may in fact be one of the easier things to obtain for much of existing standards documentation. The problem is trying to find this documentation and in some ways getting access so this information can be shared by those who have it to those that need it.
Ways Standards are Established
There is a need to be able to share ideas and concepts, and come up with formal standards that can aid with establishing common ground between different groups of people that want to take advantage of existing products and use them in new ways, usually not anticipated by the original manufacturers. There are several ways a standard is developed:
- Government Legislation
- Usually for the most basic and widely used items that must be standardized for almost all citizens are done in this manner. This includes things like weight, distance and length measurements, and monetary standards. Examples of this sort of standardization process is listed in some of the oldest records of mankind, including the Bible, the tombs of Egypt, Code of Hammurabi, or more "modern" legal instruments like Roman Legal Code or English Common Law. In order for a standard to achieve the status of legal code, it usually is very widely used and the standards have been commonly accepted, at least by the citizens of the country passing the legislation.
- Industry Standardization Bodies
- Sometimes people in a particular industry realize that in order for the members to work with one another they need to establish some basic standards for working with one another. Basic things that normally you wouldn't think about as an ordinary person have been set by these standards committees that really make life easier. For example, the power outlet that you use in your home was designed and established by one of these committees so you wouldn't need to have incompatable plugs to run consumer appliances. If you have done any international travel, particularly to different continents, you quickly realize that this particular standard is not accepted world-wide, and instead you need to have a bunch of adaptors or even a transformer in order to use some electronic equipment.
- Defacto Standards
- Sometimes a standard comes into use simply from widespread usage or natural causes. An example that is often cited is the typical spacing of vehicle axles. This dates back to times in the Roman Empire when horses would pull a chariot behind two horses. There is on average a minimum distance that can be used to harness two horses together before their hooves start tripping each other or they are bumping into each other. Over time, this approximate distance became standard when ruts in a road made it so vehicles would run easier if they also used this same axle size, even if it were being pulled by a single horse. Motor vehicles also used this same distance and has resulted in highway lane width minimums in part due to this existing standard. In this case it also shows up with standard gague railroads because the original railroads were placed on some ancient Roman roads in England. The size of the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster is based on the same pair of Roman horses because it needs to fit through tunnels on railroad cars built to standard guage requirements. Mind you that for road lane widths, standard gague railroads, and even the Space Shuttle boosters there are formal documents that indepentently define these standards, but the width of road ruts was widely used well before any of these documents were originally written. Other examples can include products made by a company that are so widespread that competitors must use the standards made by this company merely to compete.
- Ad Hoc Standardization Groups
- This is the group that we want to attract with Wikistandards. Often there is a need to establish some sort of standardization process when several groups of people want to work with each other. Usually these are people that don't want to get involved with the political process that is typical for either the international standardization bodies or national governments. Sometimes it is just an idea of seeing if you can come up with a formal standard, and the formal agreement is more like a contract or compact between the members of the group. As in the case of the PNG workgroup, they came together to come up with an alternative standard because the use of the defacto standard was illegal or prohibitively expensive due to patent requirements. A similar situation occured with the Microchannel architechture developed by IBM, which eventually lead to the PCI bus commonly used in most computers.
Need for Free Standards
A number of standards have been established by industry groups that involve licensing requirements that make it impossible for ordinary individuals to get involved in developing products or even obtaining the standards documentation. For example, the MPEG video codec requires a payment of a fee for each copy of a given piece of software that uses this data format. According to the Gnu Public License, any GPL'd software that uses this data format cannot be distributed, even though the software written would be a completely original composition.
Another example is trying to obtain information about the PCI standard used for more computer systems. At one time this set of standards documents were freely available over the internet, but have now been locked up keeping people who may need to use this information away from this documentation. In this case it now costs people a minimum of $500 in order to purchase the specifications, or join the SIG for $3000 of annual fees. In this case it is usually easier to find some book like PCI & PCI-X Hardware and Software, published by Annabooks. While this book gives most of the details for only $70, it is still an interpretation of the specification, not the spec itself. Nothing against the authors of this book, but mistakes and printing errors can and do show up, as even specifications themselves are often not 100% error free either.
Perhaps the most obvious case of where a legal confontation came up when dealing with Open Source software projects came with the Linux Video Project. It was members of this group that came up with the deCSS algorithm that became the subject of several lawsuits. There have been other attempts to provide DVD-Video access through GPL'd software, but the primary problems encountered are the fact that the standards documents to access this information are quite expensive (US $10,000 just to get the DVD-Video standard alone), and are so encumbered with patent restrictions that the end result is that software simply can't be legally written to conform with these standards using an open souce license. Attempts have been done to write a free alterative to MPEG and DVD-Video, with most of the work in this area now being done through Xiph and associated projects, like Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora.