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Standards Everywhere
by Dimitrios Kontopodis
2007-02-26 09:54:55
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The International Organization for Standardization, a.k.a. ISO, was founded February 23rd 60 years ago. Most people have heard of ISO, for example in advertisements of companies, but not many people know exactly what ISO and all the other standardization bodies actually do, and even fewer people realize the impact of their work in our daily lives. Practically speaking, each one of us uses standards every day, without noticing it and without actually caring about it.

OK, let's see, what did you do today? Did you listen to the radio when you woke up? This means that you plugged the radio receiver in one of the standard sockets on the wall, enabling the receiver to operate with the standard electrical current provided, in order to receive a signal modulated according to some standard modulation technique. Did you use a coffee machine? It surely complies with certain safety standards, otherwise you wouldn't find it in the shop in the first place.

However, you don't have to know all this in order to make coffee while listening to the radio. You just take it for granted that things work as expected. When you send an e-mail, you just click on the "Send" button and the job is finished. When I call someone on the phone, I just dial the number, and my telephone knows how to handle the signalling. When I buy a TV set, I don't have to ask if the specific model will be able to receive the signals of my local stations, I know it will. And when I try to plug it in, I know it will fit in the socket (unless I take it with me to the USA, where they use a different standard, but then I can use a standard plug adaptor to solve the problem). In a sense, the less I notice that I am using standards, the more effective they really are.

In most cases, the key concepts behind standardization are safety, reliability and interoperability. It guarantees that different components of a complex system will be able to interoperate, minimizing the technical knowledge required by the end-user. From the industry point of view, by adopting the necessary standards, each vendor can develop and sell its own products, without having to worry about the compatibility with products of other vendors.

A good standard must first of all be stable and consistent. No products can be developed if the rules of the game change constantly. It has to be technologically sound, in the sense that the underlying technologies must be efficient and not overly complex. Its implementation must be possible and at a reasonable cost. Finally, standards eventually have to gain acceptance by the industry and by the market.

In less successful cases, the user may be confronted with two or more different, competing standards. For example, there are two major family of standards for recordable DVDs, the DVD- and the DVD+. When you buy a DVD recorder, you have to check what standards the recorder supports and buy the corresponding discs. The existence of such competing standards usually means that the major industry players could not agree on a single, commonly accepted solution. Of course, each company would like to see its own technologies being accepted in the standards, since this gives an immediate competitive advantage in terms of technical expertise and, possibly, patent royalties. For the consumers, competing standards are just a source of unnecessary confusion.

There are also cases of standards that completely failed to become accepted by the market. A typical example is OSI (Open Systems Interconnection), a joint effort by ISO and ITU-T to develop a standard for computer networks. The result was a very complex set of protocols that never managed to replace the TCP/IP protocol suite, which had already established itself in the meantime. The OSI project was terminated in 1996, causing significant financial damage to those who prematurely decided to adopt it.

Next time you try to open a video file and your computer tells you that it cannot be decoded, think about standards. You are either facing a non-standard file, or there is a standard plug-in decoder missing from your computer. See, that's the thing with standards... You mostly appreciate them when you miss them.

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Asa2007-02-25 12:02:03
Wow, that was surprisingly interesting. Thanks for that.

Rinso2007-02-26 08:33:01
I have been on international standardizations committees (on safety issues) for many years. The main objective was to find a compromise that satisfied the industries in the different countries, because they were founding those committees. Not the resulting safety for the public. The next issue was the different language versions. Although we agreed upon the ideas and details, getting them right on paper in the official languages was a battle apart. A minor translation issue could delay a standard for half a year or more.
I found standards set by leading industries often more effective and certainly implemented faster.

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