The word "innovation" is on the lips of nearly every politician and half the lobbyists in Washington. But when it comes to the technical standards that form the underpinnings of U.S. innovation, the subject is "a real killer at a cocktail party," said Don Deutsch, vice president for standards strategy and architecture at Oracle Corp.
A recent conference at Georgetown University sought to shed the stereotype that standards are dull. Industry executives, academics, regulators and patent attorneys agreed that fixing U.S. and international standards setting is a top priority, but as a political issue it ranks down there with government procurement regulations.
Those concerned about the fragmentation of standards are struggling to find ways to make standards issues a key element of U.S. innovation policy. But they're unsure how to make standards a "hot topic," said Michael Nelson, IBM Corp.'s director of Internet technology and strategy. A Washington veteran, Nelson spent the pre-Bush II years working on Capitol Hill, the White House science office and the Federal Communications Commission.
If standards setting lacks the political cachet of, say, climate change, some are laboring in the trenches at least to try to fix what is increasingly seen as a lawsuit-plagued process. One proposal is to restore the role of government in helping to coordinate standards setting in a global economy. Proponents are pinning their hopes on the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the sleepy Commerce Department agency that some see as an agent of political change in an increasingly competitive world.