Standards hell

Lock-in, QWERTY etc

My mental model for standard formation. Image by Charos Pix

See also Thomas Schelling, and many other engineering and economics papers I haven’t heard of yet. Minimum power principle. Economics of standards. Partial contracts. Power outlets. The disputed economics of QWERTY. Peyton Young on which side of the road you drive on. Here, read a review of Path dependence by Scott Page.

Postel’s Law

Standards on a network.

Spolsky’s notorious Martian headsets essay:

[…] this is where Jon Postel caused a problem, back in 1981, when he coined the robustness principle: “Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.” […] Postel’s “robustness” principle didn’t really work. The problem wasn’t noticed for many years. In 2001 Marshall Rose finally wrote:

Counter-intuitively, Postel’s robustness principle […] often leads to deployment problems. Why? When a new implementation is initially fielded, it is likely that it will encounter only a subset of existing implementations. If those implementations follow the robustness principle, then errors in the new implementation will likely go undetected. The new implementation then sees some, but not widespread deployment. This process repeats for several new implementations. Eventually, the not-quite-correct implementations run into other implementations that are less liberal than the initial set of implementations. The reader should be able to figure out what happens next.

Apenwarr talks about this in terms of interoperating networks:

Postel’s Law is the principle the Internet is based on. Not because Jon Postel was such a great salesperson and talked everyone into it, but because that is the only winning evolutionary strategy when internets are competing. Nature doesn’t care what you think about Postel’s Law, because the only Internet that happens will be the one that follows Postel’s Law.

There are some explicit models fot his kind of thing in the work of Peyton Young which analyze what standards can propagate on a graph. (Burke and Young 2010; Young 1996) via network economics.

The conversation often feel logjammed once we have invoked Postel’s law. Ever been in one of those conversations where there are several standards and someone suggests a unifying standard to integrate them then someone else posts that XKCD comic?

Well! have I got a blog-post for you! Acko uses a bit of (very light) type theory and pictures of ducks to provide a vocabulary for what standard ARE and how to imagine compatibility.


Arthur, W Brian. 1999. “Complexity and the Economy.” Science 284 (5411): 107.
Burke, Mary A, and H Peyton Young. 2010. “Social Norms.” In The Handbook of Social Economics, edited by Alberto Bisin, Jess Benhabib, and Matthew O Jackson. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
David, Paul A. 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” The American Economic Review 75 (2): 332–37.
Hidalgo, César A., and Ricardo Hausmann. 2009. “The Building Blocks of Economic Complexity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (26): 10570–75.
Page, Scott E. 2006. “Path Dependence.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (1): 87–115.
Young, H Peyton. 1996. “The Economics of Convention.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 10 (2): 105–22.

No comments yet. Why not leave one?

GitHub-flavored Markdown & a sane subset of HTML is supported.