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Standards: the language for success.

Business people who can anticipate the emerging standard have the market at their feet. Someone buying or making personal computers or their accessories in the early days might not have guessed the IBM compatible PC would be a success. It is not truly an open system, but with a few de facto standards and a few widely used de jure standards its has provided an enormous advantage to its users. It allows for cheaper and better software, reasonable interoperability and freedom to pick a hardware vendor with competitive prices [2].

Standards arise from either official activity or by the force of practice. For instance, the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standards are official, or de jure standards, while DOS is a de facto standard because many people use it. A de jure standard might be more rigorously defined as a publicly available document voluntarily agreed upon as a result of processes of public consultation. The application of the standard depends on the voluntary action of interested parties. A standard becomes binding when it is made mandatory by legislation, if a party is contracted to work to it, or once a claim of compliance with it has been made [3].

The most important aim of standardization is to produce standards which are appreciated and applied. A de jure standard should be impartial in the sense that it should not give exclusive advantage to the product or service of any individual supplier. A standard is cost-effective when the effort to make and gain compliance with the standard costs less than the benefit. In areas of repid development, the balance must be struck between inhibiting innovation by standardizing too soon and proliferating wasteful or mutually imcompatible solutions by leaving standardization uncomformed.

Many Sjpheres of Influence and Opportunity

An increasing number of governments and businesses are realizing the interdependence of markets and the value of standards. The European Community is becoming consistent in its position on standards issues. This consistency means an economic community larger than the U.S. will share the reins of power in international standards deliberations. In addition, the Asian and Pacific Rim countries use standards in their products to compete around the world.

Telecommunications and information technology are converging and the deregulation of telecommunications industries increases the rate of this convergence. These public sector organizations require and generate standards, and use them as procurement documents. In Europe in particular, there is a tendency for governments to require conformance with a standard, and this also means the testing of conformance must be specified.

The amount of coordination is increasing as the cultures of the world become more sophisticated and their dependencies grow. This raises the need for an understanding of standards. Whenever people work together they must coordinate with each other [4]. Coordination may be described in terms of successively deeper levels ogf underlying processes. Many coordination processes require that some decision has been made. Group decisions, in turn, require members of the group to communicate in some form, and this communication requires that messages be transported in a standard language. This model of human-human coordination can be applied to human-machine or machine-machine coordination as well.

Big business already invests heavily in standardization efforts. In May 1993 three groups tentatively agreed to a high-definition television (HDTV) format standard. In response to the news, one editorial noted,

"For a number of years, the industry has wondered what would be the next big event--the next watershed product to spread into all sectors of the industry, spurring a host of new opportunities. The PC was the last to achieve this feat. Will HDTV be next?"[6]

Who made the standard? A lead player in one group was AT&T, another was Philips. The impact of HDTV is expected to be enormous, but what was the consumers' role in the ajpproval of the HDTV standard?

Big businesses monitor the standards processes themselves and try to influence their direction. Smaller businesses typically focus on applications software development or information services and have less resource to invest in monitoring the worldwide development of standards. Yet, standards by definition must be approved by the community at large. Everyone has an opportunity to express an opinion.

In July 1993 Anthony Gargaro, chair of the ACM Technical Standards Committee, received the 650-page, X-Windows MTE proposed standrad. Feedback had to be given within a one-month time frame. He contacted experts who were very concerned about the content of this proposed standard. Understandably, they could not take enough time to assess the work. What changes to the system would have allowed these experts to give feedback?

Education and training are integral to the wider involvement of individuals in standards activities. Professional associations should educate their members to the methods of influencing these processes. Small businesses can become more attentive to the standards process and help make the process a more generally understandable and sensitive one. Standards organizations are aiding this effort by providing new methods and tools for developing and disseminating standards [5].

Ultimately, coordination is the name of the game. And to win the game one has to first know the language of the players. Languages have a number of uses, assisting with quality management and the exchange of multimedia documents, and for the connection between an applicatiuon and an operating system. However, unlike natural human languages that evolve slowly and deliberately, information technology languages, or standards, change at a rapid pace. To survive in this turbulent setting, some investment in the monitoring is appropriate.

To the extent that "open system" are the key to the information technology industry and information technology is critical to the health of an economy, standards may be the key to economic health. Appreciation of this importance has led the U.S. government to create the National Competitiveness Act, with an emphasis on standards [1] and the provision of funds for further development and dissemination. Those who will have access to funds for standardization and, more generally, who will have the know-how and resources to influence the standards process, will have a competitive advantage in the information technology world.

This column's purpose has been to explain the meaning and importance of standards. Future installments will critique the content of specific standards and ways a small business or a big country can take advantage of them.


Important contribution to this work was made by the ACM Technical Standards Committee, particularly committee chair, Anthony Gargaro. Members of the Committee include George S. Carson, Dave Emery, Chris Haynes, John Klensin, Irving Montanez, Jim Moore, and Eugene Spafford.


[1.] ANSI Reporter. House passes National Competitiveness Act. (Jun. 1993), p.3.

[2.] Asker, B. Information technology standards, a scarce resource. Comput. Stand. Interf. 14, 4 (Apr. 1992), 275-276.

[3.] British Standards Institute. Guide to General Principles of Standardization, BS O: Part 1. British Standards Institute, London, England, 1991.

[4.] Malone, T. and Crowston, K. What is coordination theory and how can it help design cooperation work systems? In Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, (Los Angeles, Oct. 7-10, 1990), pp. 357-370.

[5.] Oksala, S. P. Master plan (strategic): Accredited standards committee X3--Information processing systems. Comput. Stand. Interf. 14, 2 (Feb. 1992), 103-116.

[6.] Scrupski, S. Coming soon: HDTV. Electr. Des. (Jun. 10, 1993), 14.
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Title Annotation:Sharing Standards
Author:Rada, Roy
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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