The MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 cases described above demonstrate the power of standards as the enablers of communication. But what is a standard? There is so much confusion around this word that I want to use this page is to try and dissipate it.
If you take the Webster’s under the entry “standard” you will find the following definition:
a conspicuous object (as a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle or to serve as an emblem
This refers to the original meaning of the word and is indeed a good definition. A standard is a model, a reference to be followed, if one feels to be well served, by following that guide. Of course that presumes one is given the freedom to choose one’s guide, which is not always the case.
In the same dictionary one finds another definition immediately after:
Something that is established by authority, custom or general consent as a model or example to be followed.
Most of this definition is also OK. Custom or general consent are subjective matters and one should be free to decide to adhere to them or not, although it is true that there are cases when customs can become rather constraining. The problem is with the word “authority”.
The attitude of some Public Authorities, which sometimes feel they should impose the use of certain communication standards by the force of law and verify compliance with law-enforcement officers, is unfortunately included in this definition. The legal nature of some communication standards is a problem, and a particularly severe one in some industries.
The broadcasting industry has traditionally been regulated in all countries and its technical standards have – or used to have – a legal status in many countries. A similar approach used to be followed in the telecommunication industry. This is reflected in the fact that the ITU, obviously including its ITU-R and ITU-T branches, is a Treaty Organisation (and an Agency of the United Nations), i.e. one where governments are the signatories and have the right to be represented. Today things have changed even there with private concerns acquiring the right to become ITU members and vote.
This mixing of technical, political and legal matters is one reason why certain standards never got approved, or took ages to be approved, see the ITU HDTV case. This is also why in the early 1990s ITU-R SG 10 “Audio Broadcasting”, that should have felt “deprived” (in the inverted logic of SDOs) of a piece of work that rightfully belonged to them, viz. audio coding for Digital Audio Broadcasting, actually welcomed the work that eventually led to the MPEG-1 Audio standard. They did so because they were realistic in their assessment that the explosive mixture of technical and political issues that dominates their committees would hardly have allowed them to deliver.
This does not mean that the ITU is unable to produce effective standards. The video coding work in ITU-T has produced some excellent standards like H.261, but this has been achieved by a group of “Experts”.
A basic rule in standards development is that technical and political problems should not be addressed at the same time. Good engineering sense suggests that, if the problems are uncorrelated, at least as a first approximation, it is better to “solve one problem at a time”, or “de-factorise” the problems. Once the first, technical, problem of developing standards, is solved, one can attack the second, understandably more difficult, of converting technical standards into law, assuming that such a step is still needed.
All the above has been said for the purpose of introducing my definition of standard:
the documented agreement reached by a group of individuals who recognise the advantage of all doing certain things in an agreed way.
Forget about law and authority. An agreement is a compromise between total satisfaction of one side and total dissatisfaction of the other. If one accepts a compromise it is only because the perceived advantages earned by entering into an agreement exceed the perceived disadvantages caused by the accepted limitation of freedom. Standards are like contracts regulated by the Civil Code. You use them if you want to buy a pair of oxen or for anything else: you sign them if you like them, you shun them if you don’t like them.
It is to be noted that my definition of standardisation contains the one found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a special case:
Standardisation, in industry: imposition of standards that permit large production runs of component parts that are readily fitted to other parts without adjustment
This is the manufacturing-driven view of standards, different from the interoperability-driven view. However, it amounts to the same effect embodied in my definition. People accept standards because it is more convenient to, say, use nuts and bolts that can be chosen from a finite set of sizes, thanks to the possibility of achieving economies of scale. We do certain things in an agreed common way because we, the parties in the agreement, see a benefit in doing so. In the example, it is more convenient to have an assured source of nuts and bolts or electronic components developed once and for all independently of specific needs, instead of having to develop the components every time they are needed.
There is one thing that I do not like in Britannica’s definition, though. The word “imposition” is misplaced. Following a standard should be a free choice, not the result of “imposition” by anybody on anybody. This is again a proof of how this innocent word “standard”, that should sound libertarian because it should be the result of a free adherence to an idea, possibly motivated by the most down-to-earth reasons, is again associated with some remote authority using the word as if it were wielding a weapon.
This does not mean that Public Authorities should have no role in communication matters. I believe that richness of information sources is a prerequisite for upholding democracy. Therefore, when a monopoly of information supply is being established, based on some restrictive technology, they should not give their nod just because the case has been made that otherwise that particular content distribution business cannot sustain itself. These are excuses because the companies making the claim are exactly those who have thwarted all attempts at developing standards that would have enabled a sustainable, although different, type of business. The answer of public authorities to the creation of monopolies should just be: “no way, make and use the right standards”, instead of saying: “you are a naughty boy, but you can get away with it, this time (and the next)”. More about this later.
My definition of standard is not particularly revolutionary and is perfectly in line with its original meaning. Even the very organisations that drive the work in international standards setting follow it. An example? Most countries in the world use A4-size papers, an element of an ISO standard (ISO 216:2007). The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the ISO NB for the United States; still ANSI does not use A4-size paper. Inconsistency? Absolutely not. Simply, for ANSI as an organisation, the perceived advantage earned by the international (in this case) agreement of using A4-size papers falls below the perceived disadvantages caused by the limitation of freedom of keeping on using letter size paper.