After watching a big chunk of its time-honored job of standards creation and marketing creep to consortia and other groups over the past few years, the IEEE is fighting back. It has set up a services organization that aims to work with the very groups that have usurped IEEE control of standards, and it is also changing voting techniques and the time frame for standards development in an attempt to shake off its image as a slow-moving bureaucracy.
The services group, called the Industry Standards and Technology Organization (IEEE-ISTO), has already signed a contract to provide services for the newly formed Medical Device Communications Industry Group (MDCIG), whose impressive roster includes Hewlett-Packard Co., Siemens Medical Systems and GE Marquette Medical Systems.
That contract is a coup for ISTO, which only got formal authorization to start doing business on Jan. 1. But the fact that MDCIG was even formed underscores some of the problems the IEEE will continue to face. Like 1394 and Gigabit Ethernet, the standard that MDCIG is promoting was developed by the IEEE, but its future is being handled by an independent group.
"Some of the members in our committee were dissatisfied with the pace we had," said Bob Kennelly, executive director of MDCIG. "They weren't dissatisfied with the IEEE, but on the consensus process that relies on volunteer engineers who have real jobs and do their work a week or two before the meetings, which are held three or four times a year. I am a member of the standards board at the IEEE, and I knew ISTO was coming, so here was a way to address these concerns."
While ISTO represents a new focus for the IEEE, it isn't a novel idea in the industry. As in any market, entrepreneurs have spotted an opening and are moving in to fill it. "From my point of view, the emergence of ISTO isn't a big deal," said Richard Baek, president of Vital Technical Marketing (Portland, Ore.), a company that provides services for the PCI special interest group, USB consortium and others in the PC world. "There are many competitors in this market already. Now there's one more."
New standards groups like MDCIG may find it easy to look at ISTO as a service provider, but it will undoubtedly be a harder sell to convince established groups they should hand over some of their operation to the new service company. Though ISTO is an independent entity, it retains close ties with the IEEE. That's a double-edged sword, since some of the consortia take a dim view of the IEEE. "Consortia have usurped a lot of their standards development, so they're looking for a way to get their hands back in," said Ray Alderman, executive director of the VMEbus International Trade Association (VITA; Scottsdale, Ariz.), who spearheaded VITA's acrimonious split from the IEEE in 1993. "A lot of people view the IEEE as a group with so many committees and antiquated rules that nothing ever gets done. I haven't seen anything that makes me think consortia will get excited about giving away power to the IEEE.
Once the camel gets its head in the tent, the rest of the camel will be in soon."ISTO representatives say they are offering services, not attempting to take over any other group's charter. ISTO's own charter is to tailor services to meet customer demands and to leverage those services, amortizing costs.
"ISTO offers the industry a new way to work with and within the IEEE," said Peter Lefkin, its secretary, treasurer and chief financial officer. "We offer flexible services so they can tailor things like procedures and voting rights. ISTO takes on activities that some standards associations don't want, like marketing the acceptance of a standard, interoperability testing and flexible intellectual-property-rights management. We will work with any type of group consortia, trade associations, unincorporated forums."
IEEE is also addressing concerns that its pace is too lumbering for an industry that values the fleet of foot. Executives say the IEEE has more than 700 working standards programs and typically starts around 100 new ones a year. Acknowledging that fast-moving markets need shorter development times, the plan is to up the number of times committees meet.
"There isn't any danger that the IEEE is going to lose its standards program," said Andrew Salem, chief exec-utive of IEEE-ISTO. "But we realize that computer and telecommunications are no doubt prime areas [to speed things up]. Traditionally, our groups have met two or four times per year. We want to increase that, and we want to use technology so things can happen between meetings."
Balloting has also been changed so that groups can decide whether to let individuals or corporations vote, a move that's also designed to shorten time-to-standards.
"Effective on Jan. 1 of this year, we're offering the ability for corporate members to ballot standards. A group can declare at the outset whether it's a corporate or a member group," said Judy Gorman, managing director of the IEEE Standards Association. "Another thing we're working on is to mix groups, to have some corporate members and some individuals on a committee. This will be voted on later this year."
Some believe that no matter how it massages voting rules, IEEE will have a hard time coping with the changes that arise in fast-paced industries. Alderman notes that VITA had to alter its own standard-making process after patent issues threatened to derail some emerging documents.
"Now that patent issues have arisen, we have set up mechanisms that let us alter a standard quickly," he said. "If someone tries to exert patent rights, we can go in and take out reference to the material at issue. IEEE does not let you do that easily."
Though IEEE has not yet addressed that issue, spokesmen believe that the overhaul in strategy since the beginning of the year could help stem the trend for a few major players to join hands to create the specifications that form the basis of their industry.
"Only a small segment of the overall IEEE industries choose consortia instead of the IEEE, but we can't ignore [the trend]," said IEEE's Gorman. "With two organizations, IEEE Standards and ISTO, the IEEE is able to offer many more options."
In some areas, particularly PCs, ISTO will be just another player. But in others, its link to the IEEE will be quite helpful. In the highly regulated world of the international medical industry, for example, working with officially sanctioned standards bodies is very important. That helped members of MDCIG make the decision to use the IEEE's services. Pricing and the hope of avoiding some of the grunt work involved in making standards were also critical factors.
"Pricing still hasn't really settled out, but I can't imagine that ISTO could be more expensive than doing this ourselves," Kennelly said. "We don't want to do the things that they will amortize, so we definitely come out ahead. For now ISTO seems very committed, and everyone in our member community likes the idea of working with them."
After it gets up and running, ISTO will be a self-supporting group. Like most startups, it doesn't expect to become an overnight success. "We expect the first year to be our proof-of-concept year, though in the first few months we've seen a high level of interest," Gorman said. "We see the second year as when we will be standing on firm ground."
As to fears that ISTO will be slow and stodgy, Lefkin said, "That won't happen; we see this as 100 percent the opposite of that. We're not imposing any procedures or rules on [clients] at all.
Talking with industry, we found that a lot of these groups are not happy with an ad hoc approach. And they don't feel that handling all the meetings and announcements themselves is the best use of time for their technical people."