Building a Cathedral

After the WS-CAF meeting in Paris, my mother and I took the train southwest to
Chartres to visit the famous cathedral.
Our guide said at one point that it was remarkable how quickly the main building was completed, especially without measuring standards. On the other hand (or is it foot?), perhaps that would account for how symmetric it all is.
Meaning that the same builder was involved for the whole time, and his foot could be used as the “standard” measure.
Thirty years seems like a long time to build anything. The World Trade Center was built in about four. (Of course it took more than 60 years to complete Chartres and more like 11 to complete WTC, but the structures were usable in 30 and 4, respectively.)
How many building items are of standard size now, compared to the 12th century? Never mind the basic invention of the measuring standard itself, the question is the purpose to which the standard has been put.
Many other industries have undergone standardization. It’s funny to think that the time of day wasn’t standard until about 120 years ago. Even then, it took another 34 years for the standard to be officially adopted by the U.S. government, and today’s time zones ratified.
How many items in daily life today depend upon standard time? Travel schedules, phone calls across countries, meeting appointments, the order of stock transaction requests in the queue…
Usually an economic reason is needed to drive standards to widespread adoption. For Henry Ford and the Model T it was the effect on price of mass production. And the key was not the assembly line, but rather the standardized system of measuring and fastening parts that allowed for a division of labor. Until then, cars were built by hand-fitting parts.
So where are we in software? IT expenses are under tremendous pressure. Companies everywhere need to speed up results, improve success rates, and cut costs.
How many benefits would derive from the widespread adoption of software standards? How many items would use them? How much of daily life would change? Would we be building World Trade Centers in four years instead of cathedrals in 30?
Could we save the time and money we all spend on developing and marketing proprietary products? Would standard software “parts” help us build software systems faster and cheaper? Is Web services going to be the answer, finally, or just another proposal to use one person’s “foot” size?

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2 responses to “Building a Cathedral

  1. Ivan Casanova

    As your example states, standards play an important role in the economics of many businesses.
    In software the creation of business centric composite applications, with standard interfaces will empower new economics models of commoditization and standardization.
    Linux and other open-source initiatives and application outsourcing have clear, bottom line costs impact for customers, but the ability of the Global 2000 to leverage these is still in its infancy because of the technology dependencies intertwined through most legacy-based business-processes.
    SOA and Web services will enable companies to model their business and easily assemble business services composed from existing disparate technology components.
    Once in place these new business services will make the existing back-end technical platforms commodities. Switching costs will go down and competitive advantage will be solely a function of strategy and business execution.
    From cross-continental railroads, to inter-modal shipping containers to network routers, the adoption of a standard was the tipping point that drove out market acceptance while driving down end-user costs. Let us all hope that the software standards in early adoption today, remain open regardless of the vast market for these types of tools.

  2. But software is ultimately physical. It’s all ones and zeroes, represented and stored using electronic media. Software is abstract only to the extent that it’s adapted for use by humans.
    I’d agree that some things are more suited to standardization than others. The way in which a nontechnical user interacts with a computer is like the way in which a casual driver interacts with a car, through an “interface” designed to adapt technology to the human. But the analogy here is about how technical users interact with computers, and this is very much like the way in which technical users interact with an automobile through the use of standard measures for nuts and bolts and threads, and standard size tubing, wiring, connectors, etc. Techincal software users need to learn standard interfaces and APIs that fit bits of software together.
    I also agree that innovation precludes standardization, or limits its useful life. Howvever in the current commoditization of software through open source etc. I see that software has matured to the point where standards can be put in place with a useful life. Certainly when we first tried to establish “interchangeable” software parts back in the early 90s, it was premature since CORBA, Java, J2EE, COM, and object-oriented technology in general hadn’t been invented.