The Difference Between Standards and “Standards”

Michael Brown

The dictionary has many definitions for the word “standard,” but I’ve been thinking of this one : “Something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model.” In the U.S., you can plug any electrical device into any electrical outlet, and that device will work. That’s a true standard. If only things were so simple in the computer industry.

What we have instead is at least two definitions: One revolves around standards defined by the IEEE and one revolves around standards defined by industry consortiums. IEEE standards are voted on by engineers whose sole interest—in theory, at least—is to see the best technology win. Technology guaranteed to be interoperable no matter who manufactures it; technology that doesn’t interfere with other products already widely deployed in the marketplace.

The problem with the IEEE is that engineers tend to be a single-minded, crusty, picky, lot that demand everything be just so before they’ll give their stamp of approval. They’re much more concerned with the standard being as perfect as it can be than they are in seeing actual products based on that standard reach the market. The upside is that this is a very democratic process; and when the standard is finally approved, it’s rock solid and dependable. The IEEE-1394 serial bus and IEEE 802.11a/b/g wireless-networking standards are good examples. The downside is that the IEEE moves at glacial speed. In this case, the 802.11n wireless Ethernet standard is a perfect example.

The computer industry’s other definition for standard revolves around industry consortiums that develop a consensus for how to build a certain class of product. Companies pay money to join the consortium, they sometimes contribute their intellectual property, they in all cases agree to license their relevant IP to every other member of the consortium, they conduct a series of meetings to hash out how this class of product will function, and they develop a logo and marketing plan aimed at educating consumers about their new standard. A product bearing the consortium’s logo is ostensibly guaranteed to be interoperable with any other product bearing that logo.

Speed is often the biggest advantage of the consortium approach to standards development. The member companies want to bring their new product to market as quickly as possible. If IEEE members are motivated by ideals, consortiums are motivated by profits. The consortium approach is decidedly undemocratic, however, in that the largest companies with the deepest pockets and the most influence have the biggest role in defining the standard, which sometimes leaves smaller and perhaps more innovative players out in the cold.

The other problem with the consortium approach is that there is often more than one trying to accomplish the very same goal. Take powerline networking, for instance. There are currently three consortiums in today’s market whose member companies all sell products that enable you to build a LAN using the existing powerlines in your home: The HomePlug Powerline Alliance , the Consumer Electronics Powerline Communication Alliance ( CEPCA ), and the Universal Powerline Association ( UPA ). The IEEE, meanwhile, is also in the very early stages of defining a standard for broadband Interenet access overr powerlines ( IEEE P1901 ).

Although some manufacturers—such as Netgear—offer products based on two or more of these “standards,” these products are not interoperable across the standards. For example, Netgear’s HDX101 and HDXB101 powerline adapters cannot send or receive data to and from Netgear’s XE102, XE103, XEP103, and WGBX102 powerline adapters—even though these are all powerline-networking products. These networks can coexist, but they can’t cooperate.

Here’s something else to consider: Although Intel left the HomePlug Powerline Alliance in 2000, the split was short-lived and Intel’s Matt Theall now serves as the organization’s president. More recently, Intel recently announced its intention to offer HomePlug powerline networking as an option on its desktop platforms beginning in 2008.

All this confusion over standards isn’t limited to powerline networking, either. Several consortiums are competing to establish the best way to stream audio and video through your home ( HANA , DLNA , MOCA , et al), the best way to automate your home ( Z-Wave , Zigbee , et al), and so on.

So what are we as consumers to do? Buyer beware: If you decide to jump into a technology that the IEEE has not yet established a standard for, the best you can do is make sure that all the components you buy adhere to the same industry consortium’s standard. And then hope that that consortium carries the day.

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