The utility of standards: from computers to shaving mugs

WOODSTOCK, Va. - If you have misgivings about the value of standards, try renovating an old Victorian house, as I'm doing now

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by John Rhea

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WOODSTOCK, Va. - If you have misgivings about the value of standards, try renovating an old Victorian house, as I'm doing now. The house was built at a time when there was no need for standards for doors and windows. Builders who were confident they knew what they were doing assembled and installed them one at a time.

Inevitably, however, everything wears out and has to be replaced. Nobody seems to be quite sure how old this house is, but it appears on an 1885 atlas of the town. Although the idea of interchangeability of parts was well established by then, nobody seemed to have bothered with such low-cost components as doors and windows.

Now I'm paying the price for such a cavalier dismissal of standards, because I must provide expensive customized replacements.

At the same time, I'm running back and forth to the local Radio Shack and Wal-Mart buying the usual kitchen appliances, telephones, and all the other hardware you always seem to need when you move. Electrical appliances are not nearly the challenge that doors and windows are. It would never occur to me or anybody else that you couldn't simply plug them in to their outlets and immediately begin using them.

It wasn't always that way. There is a story, perhaps one of those apocryphal stories that improve with the telling, that in the early days of telephone service, there were more than 20 independent telephone companies in Los Angeles, each incompatible with every other telephone company. That meant that a company that wanted to do business throughout the city had to have at least 20 telephones on its premises.

I find this story hard to swallow, but it illustrates the point that a multiplicity of competing, incompatible standards normally accompanies the advent of new technologies until dominant suppliers establish de facto standards that get everybody on the same page. As industries mature, any more than one standard is too many.

As Ray Alderman, executive director of the VMEbus International Trade Association, or VITA, in Scottsdale, Ariz., contends in the accompanying special report on industry standards, the underlying rationale for standards is to create markets.

That's what AT&T once did. The company ended the chaos in the telephone industry - albeit in a somewhat tyrannical way - by forbidding the attachment of any "foreign devices." That was until the Supreme Court stepped in and created what was in effect an even bigger market for a host of other suppliers, including Radio Shack.

In this context, I find myself bemused by all the fuss over last month's court ruling in the Microsoft case. Bill Gates didn't stick a gun to anybody's head to use Windows - or, for that matter, MS/DOS before it. I can't imagine that today's computer proliferation would have proceeded as fast as it has without those standards.

Besides, the last chapter in that story hasn't been written. Linux is muscling its way into the market, and that's not likely to be the last chapter either. I suspect there are lights burning into the night in garages in Silicon Valley right now. (Do all those guys share a designated garage, or do they use their own garages and park on the street?)

Federal regulators may eventually follow the precedent of the AT&T case - The Economist of London last month suggested breaking up Microsoft into at least two Windows companies and an applications firm - but it seems unclear at this moment who will benefit. Maybe it is all for the best and "Baby Bills" will stimulate the computer industry as the "Baby Bells" did the telephone industry.

The Economist also quotes Thomas Jefferson, an innovator of the first chop himself, on his rationale for widely dispersed intellectual property: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." I find that logic compelling.

Moving right along from the sublime to the ridiculous, let me offer two more briefs on behalf of open standards, universally adopted and universally beneficial.

Several years ago one of my children, knowing my fondness for ice cream, gave me a fancy ice cream maker. Unfortunately, it had a basic design flaw. The gap between the outside diameter of the canister, in which you put the ice cream mix, and the inside diameter of the bucket, where you put the ice and rock salt into that gap, was only 1-5/8 inches.

That's too small for the standardized ice cubes you buy at convenience stores. You need a gap of at least 1-7/8 inches. So I had to take the bag of ice out on the back porch, wrap it in a towel, and pound on it with a hammer to get the ice cubes down to a size to fit into the bucket. After a few frustrating experiences I bought a much cheaper ice cream maker and planted geraniums in the fancy wooden bucket.

A while later I had the opposite problem with a design flaw when I bought a new shaving mug to hold my shaving soap. That mug has an inside diameter of 2-7/8 inches and the cake of soap has an outside diameter of 2-5/8 inches. That meant that whenever I tried to swirl the shaving brush in the mug the soap rattled around and I never got much lather. I finally found another cup that was the right size, and now I drink coffee out of the former shaving mug.

Windows, doors, ice cream makers, and shaving mugs are - or ought to be - commodity products generally amenable to one-size-fits-all standards. Computers and a host of other advanced electronic products are not commodities - yet.

As the high technology products make that transition, and as markets mature, the dominance of standards becomes inescapable. The issue is not whether or not there should be standards, but rather at what pace and to what degree of universality the standards should be introduced. The payoff is the growing markets that Alderman envisions and the opportunities for innovators to participate in them.

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