Some Truths About Standards

By Bob Seidensticker

(Back to article)

Early on the morning of September 3, 1967, all of Sweden changed an old and entrenched standard — they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right.

The change had been four years in the making. New traffic signals and signs (aiming in the other direction) had been installed and covered until the big day. People were educated about the change. Buses even had to have new doors to accommodate curbs on the other side.

Traffic was banned for a few hours that Sunday morning while the new signs were unveiled. On Monday, there were fewer traffic accidents than normal, and the change caused no fatalities.

When we think of standards, we often think only of electronics or computer standards such as JPEG (for photos), MP3 (audio), HTML (web pages), and DVD (video). But the simple choice of which side of the road to drive on is a standard, too; and one that is hard to dislodge.

We find standards all around us. The makers of the paper and the makers of the copier must agree on paper size. The makers of the film and the makers of the camera have to agree on film size. Whenever there’s an interface between the product of one group and that of another, that interface is likely to be governed by a standard.

There are standards for electric plugs, electric power, battery size, railroad gauges, screwdrivers and screws, and light bulbs. There are standards for phone jacks, records, television, fax machines, cellular telephones, bar code, cassette tape, and videotape. There are standards for floppy disks, communications cables, and operating systems.

An estimated 800,000 standards worldwide help bring a little order to life, so here are a few observations about standards:

Just because there’s a standard doesn’t mean it will take off. I worked at Magnavox in 1981 when the FCC finally chose a Magnavox standard over those of several competitors. There was quite a bit of excitement in the company, because this was a coup in what was sure to be an important new domain of consumer electronics: AM Stereo.

Though quite forgettable now, AM Stereo seemed to be a big deal at the time. There have been lots of standards that haven’t taken off: MiniDisc, quadraphonic sound, digital tape such as DAT and DCC, and many more. And it’s not a lack of a standard that’s holding back the videophone.

Some standards start from trivial or capricious beginnings. The 8½-inch-wide carriage of the 1874 Remington typewriter defined the standard width of paper. Clock hands turn clockwise because the shadow of a sundial turned clockwise. Oil is measured in 42-gallon barrels because that was the size of the standard Pennsylvania barrel at the first oil strike in 1859.

Designed by Herman Hollerith for the 1890 census, punch cards were given the dimensions of the dollar bill of the time so drawers designed to hold money could be used to hold these cards.

Standards can also hinder innovation, but, usually, later on, standards help progress. The 1954 submarine Nautilus marked a huge success for the peaceful use of nuclear power, and its light-water nuclear power plant design was adopted for land-based power plants. But other designs would have been more fail-safe (the reactor at Three Mile Island used this design), and this standard was locked in too early.We saw the opposite problem with the more mature U.S. nuclear industry in the 1970s. Almost every plant was a custom design, and almost every plant was over budget. By comparison, the more successful French nuclear industry adopted a small number of standard designs, and their plants cost about the same as an equivalent fossil fuel plant.

Good Enough

A standard doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. And if it’s not good enough, it will be replaced. You may have heard that Betamax videotape was superior to VHS but still lost in the marketplace. Not quite. Beta might have had better specs, but tests showed that this wasn’t apparent to viewers. More importantly, VHS beat Beta on recording time.

What about the Dvorak keyboard? Wasn’t it superior to QWERTY? Dvorak has a more logical layout, but this advantage is small. More importantly, QWERTY was firmly entrenched when Dvorak came along, and Dvorak didn’t offer a big enough improvement to outweigh the hassle of the change.

Beta and Dvorak were better in the lab, but VHS and QWERTY had the advantage in the real world.

On the Plus Side

One final truth illustrates a recent positive change in our dealing with standards: Computers help minimize the problems of multiple standards. By the mid-1980s, owners of Betamax VCRs began to realize they had backed the wrong horse — an expensive mistake.

Today, however, PCs can handle various image and video formats, juggle different audio formats, and even adapt to NTSC or PAL DVDs. Keyboards can be switched on the fly between QWERTY layout and Dvorak. Computers in cell phones can switch between bands as necessary, and computers in next-generation DVD players may bypass the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format problem simply by supporting both.

It’s been said the nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from. And we will likely be dealing with ever more standards as long as society continues to innovate.

Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) and holds 13 software patents.