World Wide Web Consortium Must Seize High Ground on Web Standards Earlier, Says New CEO Jeffrey Jaffe

[Corrected 3/12/10, see below] When Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues from CERN proposed the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and the hypertext markup language (HTML) as Internet-wide standards back in the early 1990s, they didn’t face much resistance, because there weren’t any competing ideas for doing what Berners-Lee wanted to do—that is, setting up a global network of hyperlinked electronic documents.

How different the world is today. On the online video front alone, there are at least four contenders for the title of de facto Web video standard, including Flash (controlled by Adobe), VC-1 (Microsoft), Ogg Theora (favored by many free software and open source software developers), and H.264/MPEG-4 (supported by Apple, Google, and others). Standards makers at the World Wide Web Consortium, which has 350 members from across the information technology and telecommunications industries, are still debating which video formats should be supported in the forthcoming version of HTML, known as HTML 5.

The longer this state of fragmentation lasts, the harder it will be for companies and consumers to know how to invest their resources, especially as the Web goes mobile. Mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad can’t play Flash videos; Adobe’s Flash player, which is ubiquitous on laptop and desktop computers and is soon coming to many mobile devices, can’t play H.264 content. [Correction 3/12/10: An update for Flash Player 9 included H.264 video support. Thanks to John Dowdell for pointing out the error.]

Jeffrey Jaffe, announced Monday as the new CEO of the Cambridge, MA-based Web consortium, is parachuting directly into this mine field. In a phone interview on Monday, I had a chance to ask Jaffe for his ideas about how the consortium can come to consensus on issues where the W3C’s own members have powerful and conflicting interests. While it may be too late to short-circuit the debate over Web video, Jaffe said it would be extremely important in the future for the consortium to identify key areas for standards-making early, before too many players have proposed alternatives and taken up entrenched positions.

We also talked about the consortium’s other challenges, including a membership that’s shrinking as a wave of mergers and acquisitions rolls through the IT industry. Jaffe had been on the job for all of two hours when I spoke with him, so he was careful to point out that many of his thoughts about these questions were preliminary, and that his policies will be much more fully formed in a few months. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s it like for you to be taking over day-to-day leadership at the organization that oversees the growth of the entire Web?

Jeffrey Jaffe: One of the things that’s quite evident, as I talked about a little in my initial blog posting as CEO of W3C, is that the World Wide Web is basically the most transformational thing that has happened in the past several decades. It’s changing everything about how we learn, how we do business, how we entertain ourselves. It’s incredibly important, and there’s lots more change still in front of us. So I just feel extremely privileged to have an opportunity to work closely with Tim in taking this to the next level. I can’t imagine anything more exciting and meaningful for me at this stage of my career.

X: How has your experience leading technology organizations at IBM, Bell Labs, and Novell prepared you to work in the nonprofit world of standards bodies? The standards-making process has so many stakeholders pushing in different directions. On the surface, it seems pretty different from creating new products or services. Or maybe not?

JJ: Great question. I think I bring a lot of relevant experience to this. Maybe I’ll just focus on four things. First of all, I’ve worked in three large companies, all of whom cherish standards and recognize the importance of standards and who really feel like they want to participate [in W3C]. I understand how the corporations who are among the stakeholders of W3C think about … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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