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Standardization is one of – if not the – most important means of governance across borders and many articles on these blog deal with different aspects of standardization. But also beyond this blog there seems to be a growing scholarly interest in standardization, which is evidenced by the current issue of Organization Studies. Edited by Nils Brunsson, Andreas Rasche and David Seidl, the special issue on “The Dynamics of Standardization” features a series of very interesting studies, addressing issues from ISO certification over investment standards to corporate social responsibility.

And I am very happy that fellow guest blogger Sebastian Botzem and myself were able to contribute a paper to this special issue, entitled “Standardization Cycles: A Process Perspective on the Formation and Diffusion of Transnational Standards“. The abstract reads as follows:

Standards are receiving increasing attention, especially at the transnational level where standardization aims at coherence and social ordering beyond the nation-state. However, many attempts to bring about uniformity via formalized standards fail. To understand better how such rules successfully span national and organizational boundaries over time, we compare two cases of standardization in international business. Both Windows desktop software and International Accounting Standards demonstrate the need for a process perspective to understand and explain social ordering through standards. Long-lasting standardization processes require conceptualizing how different sequences of transnational standardization relate to each other. We find that at the core of such recursive cycles is the interplay of input and output legitimacy.

A pre-print version of the article is available at SSRN.


License proliferation – the development and use of different and incompatible licenses – has always been an issue in the field of open content licensing. As in any process of standardization, the utility of a certain standard depends on its diffusion. Open content licensing regimes thus become a viable alternative to the prevalent all-rights-reserved copyright regime only insofar as a critical mass of works is licensed under compatible licensing standards.

In the field of free/open source software the GNU General Public Licens (GPL) has more and more become the de-facto standard. The Black Duck Open Source Resource Center reports that about 65 percent of all software packages released under free software/open source licenses use the GPL or one of its deratives.

One of the two major innovations* brought by Creative Commons to the realm of open content licensing was the modularity of its licenses: probably inspired by libertarian ideals of maximizing individual choice (see Elkin-Koren 2005), Creative Commons allows combining different license modules such as “share-alike” or “non-commercial” (see also “Iconic Standards: Regulating and Signaling“) and thus ends up with actuall 6 different and partially incompatible licenses. Initially, Creative Commons had even allowed five more combinations and developed several special purpose licenses such as the “Sampling licenses” or the short-lived “Developing Nations License”. Recognizing that this increase of license choice led to a fragmentation instead of a maximization of the aspired commons of digital works, Creative Commons now struggles to solve a problem it partially helped to create in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

Microsoft’s 1991 “Press Computer Dictionary” defined “Vaporware” as follows (taken from Bayus et al.):

“vaporware n.  (1) a product that the vendor keeps promising is about to arrive ‘really soon now’, but it goes so long past its shipment date that no one believes it will ever really ship […] (2) slang for announced software that may never materialize […]; (3) a term used sarcastically for promised software that misses the announced release date, usually by a considerable length of time”

Into management language “vaporware” could probably best be translated as “strategic product pre-announcement”. Especially in technological network markets, corporations with strong market power pre-announce upcoming products and promise a wide range of features so that customers refrain from adopting or even switching to an already existing alternative solution. The rationale behind those strategies is relatively simple and it transcends network markets, reaching into the realm of standardization with network effects in general: “the standard that is expected to become the standard will become the standard”, as Shapiro and Varian put it in their seminal book “Information Rules” (1999, p. 13).

For decades, Microsoft was the uncrowned king of vaporware. (Actually, already in 1985 Bill Gates received the “Golden Vaporware Award” by Infoworld’s editor Stewart Alsop.) The long pre-announced introduction of Windows 95 is legendary and has just recently been topped by Microsoft starting to announce new features of Windows 7 immediately after the release of its unloved Windows Vista.

Seen in this light, the recent reactions of Microsoft officials to Google’s pre-announcement of “Chrome OS” (see “Microsoft vs. Google: New Fronts in a Paradigmatic Battle“) do not lack unintentional humor. Microsoft’s Senior Vice President, Bill Veghte, bemoaned in an interview that “so far Google’s Chrome OS is nothing more than a blog post.” Even more revealing is yesterday’s remark of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as reported by CNET:

“Gates said it was hard to really say much about Chrome OS, since Google has said so little about how it will actually work. ‘The more vague they are, the more interesting it is,’ he said.”

Both critiques resemble accusations Microsoft regularly had to deal with in the past. But maybe Microsoft is right and Google will be its successor to the throne of vaporware. We will see.


Together with our recent guest blogger Sebastian Botzem from the Social Science Research Center in Berlin I prepared a piece for this year’s EGOS Colloquium, which is taking place in wonderful Barcelona. In the sub-theme titled “The social dynamics of standardization” we are presenting our paper “The Rule of Standards: Codifying Power in the Transnational Arena” (PDF), in which we try a relatively unorthodox comparison: We contrast the case of Microsoft Windows as a technological market standard with non-technological and negotiated accounting standards in the realm of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

Not least to our own surprise, both examples of standardization show many similarities that allow drawing conclusions for transnational governance by standard setting in general. Among these are the following:

  • Due to coordination effects, in both cases an increase in the total number of adopters paves the way for – though not guaranteeing – one dominating standard.
  • While having been developed differently (market competition vs. political negotiation), in both cases growing standard diffusion reduced the need for participatory or inclusive modes of standard-setting (see the figure below).
  • Finally and again observable in both cases, growing adoption can trigger what we call the dialectics of power in standardization: The successful establishment of a standard redistributes benefits and power among affected actors and feeds back into the standard formation process.

Comparing Standardization Processes

But aside from these conclusions, the paper may also illustrate why gathering seemingly very different empirical fields under the common umbrella of “governance across borders” in this blog might make sense after all.


The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
April 2023

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