© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
On a very regular basis, many of us plug an electric appliance into a wall outlet. Not only do we expect the plug to fit, we also expect the appliance to work, probably without even thinking about it. Yet that can be so only if all the suppliers of electric sockets and plugs serving a given region follow the same socket-and-plug design, and the corresponding electrical conventions. And as you might have experienced, while you can take a device with a US plug and use it directly in Japan, you cannot do so in Germany, and vice versa; at the very least, you'll need an adaptor. [I have several: one is a single piece that allows selected prongs to protrude; the other provides a series of convertors that stack on one another. Both handle US, European, UK, and Australasian inputs and outputs.]
Since December 1984, I've worked on a number of US and international standards in the Information Technology area. I won't bore you with the esoteric details of that work, but, later on, I will mention a couple of projects with which you might relate. For the most part, I'll focus on other, every-day examples of standards and conventions.
Regardless of how, why, or by whom a standard is created, it needs to be written as a clear specification, so people can build products and provide services to comply with that standard. The person in charge of writing such a specification is often called a project editor or redactor. [For the past 12 years, that has been my main role in standards-related work, hence the title of this essay. From a standard's writer's perspective shall is a very strong word whereas can, might, could, and should, are weak words. And may is strong if its means "having permission" rather than "might".]
Standard or Convention?
There are two main kinds of standards:
- Mandatory/Regulatory (defined by local, national, or international public health and safety officials, for example)
- Optional/Industry initiatives (to allow interoperability and preservation of investment in equipment and training)
Sometimes, a vendor or consortium of vendors so dominates a market that its products became a de facto standard.
Standards We Use Regularly
Often when I put gasoline into my car, I see a sticker on the pump saying something like, "This pump has been calibrated and tested by the local/state Department of Weights and Measures on <test-date>." How do we know we're getting exactly 2 gallons of gas or that the 1-kg packet of meat we're paying for weighs exactly one kilo? Of course, it's not practical to measure everything we buy/use; we simply have to trust someone to have "done it correctly". Behind the scenes, a lot of people work to make that the case, and if they do their job properly, you'll never know or even think about them.
Regarding environment and health, there are standards for water quality, air quality, and automobile exhaust emissions. We have standards for seat belts and airbags. And given the growing use of the term organic with respect to food, we have an evolving—but not universal—set of definitions. However, read the fine print; there are always marketers trying to stretch the truth. [By the way, when people talk about organic produce, I joke that it really does taste much better than that inorganic stuff!]
When it comes to utilities and appliances there are a whole host of standards, many of which vary considerably from one country to another:
- Electricity: In the US, we use 110 volts and 60 Hertz with the plug having two vertical, flat blades and an optional circular ground (earth) pin. And even then, on some plugs one of the flat blades is taller than the other. [100 years ago, a lot of power generated in the US was 40 Hertz. In my original country, Australia, it is 240 volts, 50 Hertz, with two, flat blades at an angle to each other and an optional third flat blade as the ground.] For a lot of information about different plug/socket conventions, click here.
- Telephone: For those of us in the US still having a landline, we very likely plug our phone into an RJ11 jack. However, that wasn't always the case. When I lived in Chicago in 1979, my phone's wall socket had four pins equally spaced around a large, circular plug. [20+ years ago, when I started traveling internationally with a laptop computer using dial-up internet access, I bought a large set of adaptors that converted an RJ11 plug into pretty much every local phone socket type that existed.] Of course, now we have wireless mobile phones, but they use a myriad of incompatible conventions, and phone vendors can put locks on their handsets. There is also a standard for international telephone numbers, having the general form
+ <country-code> <area-code> <local-number>
For example, +1 703 555 1212 is in the US (country code 1) with area code 703, which is in northern Virginia.
- Radio: It still amazes me that I can stick a stationary antenna up in the air and use it to listen to news and music. And to be able to do that in a car moving at 50 mph or on a jet flying at 600 mph, is truly amazing. Beyond that, we need some standard transmission bands, such as AM, FM, XM, and short wave.
- Television: The US (and other countries) had NTSC (jokingly referred to as "Never Twice the Same Color" or "Not The Same Color twice"), the Germans and Aussies (and many other countries) had PAL, and France and its territories, and Russia (among others) had SECAM. Then, of course, we had the VHS vs. Betamax videotape format war. And just to make it interesting, the audio on a PAL VHS tape can be heard on an NTSC VHS player, but the video cannot be seen due to the different number of lines per frame.
- Audio/Video: If you are like most people, you have a rat's nest of cables behind your stereo/TV cabinet. Currently, I have RCA, composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI cables. They're all standards; they just need entirely different (and sometimes expensive) cables. For a lot of information about different audio and video interfaces and connectors, click here.
- CD: After all the shakeout with videotape formats, the audio CD folks got it right. An audio CD can be played on any player anywhere in the world. What a concept! Of course, that was too sensible, and more complexity was needed; we had audio CD, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, Video Compact Discs (VCD), Super Video Compact Discs (SVCD), PhotoCD, PictureCD, CD-i, and Enhanced CD. (Did I miss any?)
- DVD and Blu-ray: When this media arrived, piracy of intellectual property was a growing problem, so while your average garden-variety digital video is the same around the world, the notion of DVD region codes was introduced. Australia uses a region code of 4 while the US uses a code of 1. So when a friend from Down Under brought me a prerecorded video, it wouldn't play on any of my video players. And while it would play in my Windows-based PC, the player software warned me that it would only play a "foreign" code-based DVD 10 times after which it would permanently switch the code of my DVD drive to that foreign code only. I am happy to report that when I burn a DVD with my home-movie maker software, it uses the universal region code 0. Of course, DVDs come in a number of flavors: DVD, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, with Dual-Layer being added to the mix.
- Digital Photo: While there are numerous formats for these, the camera industry seems to have settled on JPEG.
Most of us drive a car or use public transportation. Doing so involves a whole host of standards. For example:
- Nuts and bolts: The size and threading
- Tires: Diameter, width, and quality
- Batteries: Voltage and quality
- Fuel and Oil: This may include fuel efficiency standards
- Windows: Safety glass specifications
- Traffic lights: This simple, but very important, invention is pretty much universal. However, some countries still pass through yellow when going from red to green, while most do not. Also, in some countries the set of lights is arranged horizontally while in others it is vertical.
- Highway Signs and Traffic Rules: In the US, at most intersections controlled by lights, drivers can turn right on red after stopping.
The financial world employs numerous standards, which include:
- Credit, Debit, and ATM/Cash Machine Cards: The size of the card, the format of the number, and the magnetic stripe encoding
- Electronic Funds Transfers: These use an international Bank routing number and account number
In the world of personal computers, there literally are dozens of standards:
- Floppy Disk: There have been a number of popular sizes and formats.
- Network Cables: The world finally settled on the RJ45 Ethernet cable.
- Device Cables: We've had serial, parallel, and SCSI ports and cables. Now, everything seems to be USB with some FireWire.
- Surfing the Internet: Web pages have to be organized in some known fashion, and web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari need to understand that organization. If you have ever sent email to a person in another country, the chances are their address ended in a 2-letter country code, such as ".uk", ".jp", or "fr".
A few other standards we use on a regular basis are, as follows:
Who Develops Standards?
On the regulatory front, boards are often convened at the local, state, or federal level, with input solicited from the public.
In the more formal standards world, we have Standards Development Organizations (SDOs). Some examples are:
- International: IEEE, ISO, IEC, and ITU
- National: The US has ANSI, the UK has BSI, Germany has DIN, and France has AFNOR, for example
- Government: US Food and Drug Administration, US Environmental Protection Agency
- Consortia: Ecma International, OASIS, W3C
In short, anyone or any organization can establish a specification. Unless it involves an area needing government regulation, it's mostly a matter of marketplace relevance as to whether that specification becomes a de facto or formal standard. And just because a standard is produced by a recognized SDO doesn't mean it will succeed. Unfortunately, the world is full of failed standards!
In the case of commercial enterprises, to avoid being seen as pursuing antitrust activities, there usually needs to be at least two competing groups working together using an open development process.
In many cases, a product or service that claims to conform to a standard must be verified by testing, with a certificate being issued before conformance can be claimed legally. For certain products, governments might require such conformance before a vendor can qualify for procurement consideration.
In the computing world, we have what are called validation suites. These are used to test an implementation to see if it conforms to a given specification.
I have seen many products (mostly electrical in nature) with the label UL. According to Wikipedia, "UL (Underwriters Laboratories) is a safety consulting and certification company headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois. It maintains offices in 46 countries. UL was established in 1894 and has participated in the safety analysis of many of the last century's new technologies, most notably the public adoption of electricity and the drafting of safety standards for electrical devices and components."
Maintenance of Standards
I can easily imagine that the entire specification for the US 110-volt plug-and-socket standard takes up no more than a few pages of text, diagrams, and tables. As such, once all interested parties have proofed this, there is a very good chance it can be frozen for a very long time, possibly forever. On the other hand, a standard for a computer programming language might run 1,000 pages, and because its basic building blocks can be combined in an infinite number of ways, it can be difficult, time consuming, or even impossible to prove that its specification is not incomplete or self-contradictory in some way. In any event, as technology evolves, such languages need to be extended. This requires there to be a process by which the public can submit questions about a specification or to point out possible errors or shortcomings. [The largest and most complex specification I've worked on contains 6,500 pages. The committee responsible for maintaining that meets face-to-face three times a year for three days and by teleconference for two hours each month.]
Some of My Regulatory and Standards Work
Back in the early 1970's, I worked for an Australian state government Department of Chemistry, in the pesticide residues section of the Food and Drugs division. On a regular basis, I checked samples from the egg, milk, and fresh vegetable markets. Pesticides can enter the food chain through chemical sprays on food fed to farm animals and poultry. However, farmers are prohibited from spraying crops too close to harvest, so this doesn't happen.
One day, I took delivery of 20 dozen bottles of red wine. Over a several-week period, I had to test each one for artificial coloring, which was banned. Day after day, I found nothing, and I tested my control method continuously. Then finally, in the last few bottles, one failed the test. It was with great excitement that I hollered out the window to my boss—who was getting in his car to go home—that "I'd found one". He hurried back and watched me test it again, and, YES, it was indeed positive! [The German word shadenfreude comes to mind.]
At that same time, some of my colleagues were testing for mercury in fish. It was also the heady days of all those nasty things like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange), 2,4,5-T, and chloropicrin.
After leaving Chemistry, I went into the field of computing working for a state highways authority. Every truckload of concrete delivered to every jobsite had a sample taken. Three days later, that sample was crushed with all kinds of information being recorded. I implemented a system to process the results. [By the way, if a batch failed the tests, the contractor had to rip up all the concrete from that batch at their own expense!]
If you have used Microsoft Word for some time, you may well have noticed that with the 2007 edition, the files created changed from type DOC to type DOCX. The former was a format proprietary to Microsoft, and was wildly popular. However, some US state and foreign governments wanted office software that read and wrote files that could be understood by any vendor. The result was IS 29500, a 4-Part standard involving some 6,500 pages. Not only does this cover Word's "DOCX" format, it also covers the formats for Excel and PowerPoint. As a result, Apple uses this format for the office tools on its platforms, as do other vendors.
In the past 25 years, I've also been involved in writing specifications for software that needs to support culturally diverse audiences by dealing with such things as name, address, and telephone number formats; a variety of date and time formats; a large variation in alphabets and writing systems; and so on. If you think for a moment what might be involved in making the exact same program (MS Word, for example) work in US English, British English, Swiss German, Russian, Japanese, and Arabic modes, you'll have some idea why standards can be very important.
As I travel around the world, I sometimes come across commercial or industrial developments with large banners or signs outside saying ISO 9000-Compliant. According to Wikipedia, "The ISO 9000 family of standards is related to quality management systems and designed to help organizations ensure that they meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders while meeting statutory and regulatory requirements related to the product."
Every area of life is affected by standards, which can be as diverse as welding for pipelines, oil and gas exploration, how to cook the perfect pasta, how to make the perfect cup of tea, how to taste wine, toothbrushes, acoustics and hearing, and musical instrument tuning. There is even Irish Standard I.S 417:1988. Specification for Irish Coffee., which outlines the ingredients used, the minimum quantity of Irish Whiskey, the depth and quality of cream, and the temperature, among other things. Whatever will they think of next?