De Facto Standard Definition

A de facto standard is a standard that has become a standard because it is widely used rather than because it was officially approved by some standards organization or government.

A standard is a uniform set of specifications for some or all aspects of a product (i.e., a good or service) or other activity that allows such products to interoperate without special arrangement. If well designed and widely implemented, standards can provide substantial benefits to businesses, consumers and the economy as a whole by reducing the costs (and thus prices) for products, by promoting competition, and even by facilitating innovation.

De facto standards are not necessarily the best standards. Rather, they typically come into being because they are the first or because some dominant company has been able to impose them. Less than optimal de facto standards tend to persist because of the high cost of changing to other standards.

There is a strong incentive for businesses to create and control standards. This is because the control of a standard can facilitate increasing market share, and thereby increase profits. It is often easiest to control a standard by making it a de facto standard rather than having it approved by a standards organization or government.

The classic example of a de facto standard that is not necessarily the best is the VHS format for video tape recording. There is much agreement among industry experts that the rival Beta standard was actually superior from a technical point of view. However, the VHS standard won out due to superior marketing tactics by its proponents.

Other examples of de facto standards include the British system of measurements (e.g., inches, feet, pounds, etc.) that is still dominant in the U.S., the AT command set for controlling modems, the four feet eight and a half inch railway gauge (i.e., the distance between the rails), the use of a particular language in a particular country (e.g., English in the U.S.), the PostScript page description language for laser printers, Microsoft Word for documents, the IBM-compatible personal computer, the X Window System graphic engine for Unix-like operating systems and TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) for computer networks.

A de jure standard is a standard that has been established by law. Examples include national currencies, official languages, measurement systems and the side of the road on which vehicles drive (i.e., either right or left). Conflicting de facto and de jure standards often exist, for example, in the case of a language or dialect imposed on a region that continues to use its own language or dialect.

De facto standards often become de jure standards, particularly those that have been in use for long periods of time. Examples include languages and railway gauges.

Created November 27, 2005.
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