Standards Definition

A standard is a uniform set of specifications for some or all aspects of a product (i.e., a good or service) or activity that allows interoperation of the product with some other products (including inputs and/or outputs), activities or users without special arrangement.

Standards, if well designed and widely implemented, can bring benefits to businesses, consumers and the economy as a whole by reducing the costs (and thus prices) for products, by promoting competition, by making products easier and more convenient to use, and even by facilitating innovation. Among the ways in which these benefits can occur are by (1) allowing businesses to design and produce products that conform to existing standards rather than having to go to the trouble and expense of developing standards of their own, (2) eliminating the need to produce different versions of products to be compatible with multiple versions of non-standardized products with which they interoperate, (3) resulting in predictable specifications for inputs, (4) making it practical to have simpler and reduced documentation required for products and (5) lowering inventory costs for manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and others by reducing the number of versions of products that need to be carried in inventory.

In addition, (6) standards can facilitate innovation by simplifying the design process and thereby allowing product designers more time and energy to devote to developing ways of improving products. Well designed standards are not so overwhelming that they hinder innovation; rather, they leave sufficient room for innovation while maintaining interoperability.

A common example of the benefits of standardization is the high cost and inconvenience that would result for manufacturers, distributors and consumers of electrical products if there were standards for the electrical power supply and thus every city or region in a country had a different voltage and frequency. Likewise, the Internet would be far less convenient if there were no universally accepted standards for it.

Standards can be classified in a number of ways, including (1) how they are formed (e.g., by tradition or by a committee), (2) whether they are unique or competitive, (3) their scope (e.g., whether they are universal, national, local, etc.), (4) the degree of compulsion (e.g., voluntary or mandatory), (5) whether they are proprietary (i.e., commercial) or open, (6) their duration and (7) what they are applied to (i.e., a product, activity, industry, etc.).

Ways in which standards come into being include by tradition or development by a company, a group of companies acting together, a government or government agency, or a group of governments. A de facto standard is a standard that exists without having initially been enacted by an official standards body or a government agency; such a standard typically exists because of tradition or because some dominant company started using it and others followed. This contrasts with a de jure standard, which is usually established by a governments or government agency and is often legally binding. De facto standards frequently become de jure standards.

Standards can be unique or competitive, or both. For example, TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) is the unique set of standards on which the Internet is based. However, for small, private networks, such as local area networks (LANs), there are alternative standards. Multiple sets of competing standards exist for computer operating systems and for files produced and used by computers. In most countries there is a single official set of standards for weights and measures, but many countries also have a traditional set of such standards that are still used to some extent (e.g., pounds and feet in the U.S.). Some countries have multiple official languages (e.g., English and French in Canada).

Some standards are universal (or nearly so), such as the metric system and the Internet, while others only apply to particular countries or regions. For example, electrical standards (including voltages, frequencies and hardware for connectors) differ for different countries or groups of adjacent countries. In the case of Japan, there are, for historical reasons, two different electrical standards, each for a different part of the country.

Standards can differ with respect to enforcement. For example, in some countries there are strict rules that prohibit merchants from using weights and measures other than the metric system, and fines are sometimes imposed on violators. In the U.S., however, the use of the metric system is optional for merchants and many others. Likewise, in some countries standards regarding the contents of food products are strictly enforced, while in others there is little or no enforcement.

Although standards are often arrived at by cooperation among competing businesses, they do not necessarily reduce competition. In fact, standards can increase competition (and thus provide the benefits of increased competition) if they are available to all existing and potential competitors to use at no cost or minimal cost, and they can help prevent a single company from dominating an industry with proprietary standards.

Standards can apply to virtually anything, and often numerous types of standards apply to a single product. For example, different, non-conflicting standards could apply to the following aspects of a product: quality, uniformity, safety, interoperability with certain types of other products, testing methods, terminology, classification, identification and disposal. In addition to standards for the product itself, there could also be standards for the facilities in which the product is produced (e.g., safety, cleanliness and documentation), standards for the parts, materials and tools used in production, and even standards for the workers involved in production.

A few examples of the numerous and diverse areas to which standards have been successfully applied include freight containers, personal computers, the Internet, PDF (portable document format) files, musical notation, consumer telephone equipment, railroad track gauges, bar codes, video encoding, units of weight and measure, electronic components, political and judicial processes (e.g., elections and court procedures), currency, foodstuff and pharmaceutical purity, licensing of professionals, aircraft operation, and languages (both human and computer).

TCP/IP is one of the most successful and universal of standards. It allows almost anyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection to access and post content that is available almost anywhere in the world without any special arrangement and at minimal cost. HTML (hypertext markup language) is an equally successful standard for producing web sites; although it is widely violated, both by web sites and by browsers, the Internet and web as a whole are so robust that this usually does not cause serious problems.

Major trends have been the development of more and more standards, for standards to become more precise and complex, the development of more efficient means to assure compliance with standards, and for the scope of standards to increase accompanying the growth in economies and the expansion of world trade.

Control over standards can be of immense benefit to individual businesses or groups of businesses. This is particularly true if such control allows companies to require that their competitors pay a fee to use them or excludes their competitors from using them, for example by legal means or by keeping details of the standards secret. This can be harmful to the economy as a whole, and thus there has been a move towards promoting open standards which are freely accessible to everyone.

A major issue with regard to standards recently has been the attempt to encumber parts of them with patents. This is highly controversial because, although it can benefit individual companies that control the patents, it can put other users of the standards at a disadvantage. For example, although companies that control patents for parts of standards being considered for approval by standards bodies typically claim that they do not intend to charge fees for the use of such patents, there is usually nothing to stop that from changing in the future.

Moreover, it is sometimes the case that standards are enacted by standards bodies which are not aware that parts of the standards are encumbered by patents. This can cause serious problems years later because a company that owns such a patent (or claims to) can attempt to extract large fees from the various users of the standard for supposed patent violations. This can also result in a costly effort by users of a standard to attempt to develop a new standard which is not based on the patent. Such patents are sometimes called submarine patents because they can suddenly rise to the surface and become visible when nobody was aware that they existed.

Another major issue with regard to standards is that it can, in some cases, damage traditional cultures and reduce cultural diversity. This is because such cultures tend to get underrepresented when making decisions due to the facts that it is difficult to quantify them and that they usually do not have the powerful and profitable constituencies that industrial standards have. Traditional culture was particularly an issue in countries in which the metric system was adapted by rather heavy handed techniques that included stiff fines or jail sentences for small scale merchants that continued to use traditional weights and measures. It was also an issue when deciding whether to replace national currencies with the euro in the European union.

Numerous national and international organizations exist for the purpose of formulating and promoting standards. Among the better known are the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Deutsches Institut fur Normung (DIN), European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Japan Industrial Standards (JIS), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Created February 21, 2006.
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