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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Let’s see . Beta or VHS? What’s become a clich for the decision about what standards to adopt as new technologies emerge was a maker or breaker back then. The stakes haven’t changed. “The reason IT executives care about standards is that some standards – like television or the Internet – trigger technology and business revolutions,” says David Truog of Forrester Research, author of a new report, “When to Bet on a Standard.” Financial institutions, of course, are loathe to bet on anything, but sometimes that’s not easy to avoid, as a fast-evolving marketplace demands decisions about the infrastructure needed to support new products and services, and the investment that follows. Credit unions, of course, for reasons of scale and the nature of their business, tend to be followers instead of leaders, and that’s not such a bad thing, the Forrester researcher says. “Beware the first-mover disadvantage,” Truog says. “Embrace a standard when it is mature enough that you’ll be able to afford retrofitting to the inevitable tweaks.” Of course, being first – if it works – can be enormously rewarding for the right enterprise. But those outfits are often the kind funded by venture capital, not share draft and savings accounts. In a caveat that could apply to credit unions, Truog says, “Companies whose strategic advantage is not in innovation but in price, for example, should postpone the expense and risk of jumping on a standard until it’s unavoidable.” That’s because wrong bet can mean taking a stake in software that’s quickly outdated and unsupported, and doesn’t play well with others . which is what perhaps the most visible standards shakeout taking place right now – in XML and Web services – is all about. Truog defines a standard as “a widely accepted specification of how a set of technologies that must interoperate should be implemented.” Web services involve using middleware to allow disparate applications to work together – connecting systems, networks and hardware of various kinds over the Internet. XML is extensible markup language, which uses customized tags to describe the data content of a message in a way that’s independent of the application being used. That allows different applications to use the same data, enabling things like Web services and what many think is the next generation of the Internet. Of course, nothing happens unless it gets adopted widely, and Microsoft just made it known that it’s taking a big step, incorporating XML in versions of Word and Excel expected out next year. That kind of adoption speaks to the first of the four traits of a standard that Truog cites as predictors of success: Strong and diverse backing, especially when “archenemies band together to push a specification, as Sun Microsystems and IBM did with Java.” The other three are multiple product implementations (A standard is a document, not software, Truog observes here, adding, “It’s when people build a standard in software that they smoke out its ambiguities.”), consensus and simplicity. The latter takes place when a standard gets broken down into its component parts, Truog says, which is something he sees happening with the growing XML set of standards. The Forrester analyst focuses, in fact, on Web services as his test case for standards adoption, and he includes SOAP (simple object access protocol) and WSDL (web services description language) with XML as Web services “standards that have the qualities it takes to be safe bets for any IT organization without question.” The “without question” thing can be crucial when the organization’s technology staff is advising senior managers where to put the dollars for infrastructure hardware and software. As Truog says, “Because standards are such a high-stakes game, a bet for or against one can turn out to be a career-making move – or professional suicide. “CIO’s and CTO’s must carefully assess which standards are likely to catch on and decide whether and when to make the leap.” -

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