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The cost of standards

Sometimes we hear but we don’t listen to what we’re told. Such is often the case with standards, and the costs of our miscommunications can be incredibly high. NASA recently learned this painful lesson because one of its teams was using metric units while another was using Imperial units. The misunderstanding led to the demise of the Mars Climate Observer. (Why are some NASA teams using Imperial units anyway?) Misuse of SI units is also a common error in the United States and can be very confusing. Consider, for example, a medical measurement of thyroid activity known as T4 that expresses units in µg/dL.

Decilitres? Some other international standards are neither international nor standard. The publishing world has adopted the International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) standard for periodicals and the International Standard Book Numbering (ISBN) standard for books. But when it comes to, say, paper sizes, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard (ISO216) has certainly never caught on in the United States; nor do we use the ISO8601 standard for date and time notation (date in YYYY-MM-DD). ISO9000 standards have been forced on vendors who want to sell internationally, but it never ceases to amaze the author how American business shows its ignorance by neglecting — refusing — to conform to standards, thus hindering its ability to do business in the rest of the world.

Several decades ago, when the world felt a lot smaller — when international travel was rare and strawberries were available in your local markets only for a short period in June and July each year — there were reasons for independent direction in standards. The United States adopted 525-line 29.94fps monochrome NTSC television because it wanted more resolution than the British 405-line 25fps system and because it wanted to reduce the visibility of frame bars on the display caused by poorly engineered power supplies.

When it came to color standards, U.S. engineers made the common sense decision to provide a backward-compatible video signal for viewers with existing monochrome sets. Germany invented PAL to overcome what it considered a major design flaw in the existing color standards. But it was also a marketing issue, because European vendors believed PAL would keep the U.S. manufacturers out, and the emerging Japanese manufacturers would focus on the larger North American market. Japan pulled a similar trick after WWII by opting to drive on the left side of the highway to keep North American vehicle manufacturers out of their market — and it worked.

In the PAL versus NTSC decisions, the British went a step further by insisting on using a higher video bandwidth and moving the sound carrier a further half-megahertz away from the video carrier to 6MHz. With other European vendors focused on manufacturing TVs with 5.5MHz separation, British manufacturers like Rank-Bush-Murphy expected to keep the domestic market, along with markets in countries such as Hong Kong and South Africa, to themselves. With the exception of the Japanese motor industry, this protectionism hasn’t worked. For example, the largest vendors of TVs in Britain turned out to be Philips and Sony. Rank-Bush-Murphy went out of business in 1980 after a failed venture with Toshiba. And as for SECAM, well, let’s not even go there.

Recently, U.S. companies played a game of chicken with the Chinese. The Chinese proposed a unique security protocol, Wireless LAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI), to replace the existing 802.11 security standards. They were going to ban imports of products that did not include WAPI, starting on June 1, 2004. In the U.S., two companies, TI and Atheros, caved in, while Intel and Broadcom said they would not go along with it. The latter two companies realized that agreeing with it would have opened up the floodgates for other cute little standards imported from China. And since when does China have any interest in its citizens’ privacy?

Intel and Broadcom listened. They heard not just the message, but the future. Others listened but just heard their wallets shrinking. When it comes to the next generation of HDTV, which is not that far away, can we, as a planet, sit down, listen carefully and make some sensible decisions?

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.