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Feature Article
August 2003

Are Standards Worth The Paper They're Printed On?


�The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man,� said George Bernard Shaw. In this statement, Shaw reveals some startling insights into the process of innovation. Conformity, he suggests, diminishes progress, or innovation. But, consider the standardization process. The orthodox view would suggest that standards are essential for innovation. This view is commonly held in the telecommunications and IT industries, where movements to ensure conformity, or standardization of products and technologies abound. Vendors vie with each other to implement the latest standards, purchasers insist on compliance to them, and more and more organizations seem to be emerging to create them. But, how can we reconcile the standardization view of the world with that of Shaw and many other thinkers who have also suggested that conformity inhibits innovation? If this were true, why would anyone want to invest in standardized technologies and products? Do they promote innovation? Or stifle it?

Let�s start by examining a contemporary example. 2003 looks like being the year of WiFi. A technology that was unknown to many except industry insiders or technology enthusiasts has gained increasing media coverage and public awareness. Simultaneously, the opportunity to access the technology and benefit from WiFi services has grown exponentially, with more and more wireless �hotspots� emerging every month, and, to cap it all, Intel has announced the integration of WiFi into its Centrino chip range. This is extremely significant as it eliminates the previous requirement to have accessories for laptops and personal computers in order to connect to WiFi services. How has this rapid market penetration and acceptance arisen?

It seems as if WiFi is a new innovation that has come from nowhere to gain widespread acceptance. Interestingly, it is one of a special kind of technological developments that has become widely known and recognised through an associated standard. Examples of this are few and far between: in Europe, �GSM� is known everywhere as the dominant standard behind mobile telephony, just as �UMTS� is becoming known as the standard behind the long-awaited deployment of 3G mobile technology. This phenomenon is relatively uncommon, but many people will recognise �802.11� as the standard behind WiFi. So does this mean that it is the standard that has been responsible for the rise to prominence of WiFi? What role has it played, if any, in the virus-like spread of WiFi across the world?

WiFi technology -- by which we mean wireless LAN technology -- first emerged in the early 1990s. Back then, some pioneering companies attempted to take the existing Ethernet standard, which had emerged as the technology of choice for the LAN, and develop versions that could operate over a wireless network. All initial efforts were proprietary in nature, but proponents recognised that, in order for the technology to gain market acceptance and leverage the success of Ethernet, a publicly available standard was required. This took a number of years, but in 1997, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, (the IEEE), ratified and released a new standard for wireless Ethernet networking, or 802.11 as it was formally known.

WiFi as it was then conceived was designed to allow wireless access to private Ethernet networks. However, with the rise of use of the Internet, it became clear that other users might also be interested in deployment, as it offered a much faster means of accessing the Web than conventional fixed technologies. A number of companies began to offer products that utilised the new standard. Apple Computer was one of the first to introduce support into their computer products in 1999, a development that was coincidental with the deployment of the first community based wireless �hotspots� and commercial installations. Fast-forward to 2003 and the situation today: WiFi has become the latest �hot� technology and the term has become common currency. But, let�s think for a moment about the evolution process. What role did the standard play in this?

It is easy to confuse the success of the technology with the standard itself. Superficially, it seems that was responsible. Once the standard was agreed, it created an opportunity for rapid innovation and adoption of the technology. However, that is to underestimate the role of the pioneers in this story. The actual innovation was carried out in a proprietary fashion, but it was recognised that the influence of the early developers would probably be marginal without the credibility and market acceptance that a generic, public standard could offer. Once transformed into a standard, the technology could be developed by anyone who wished and, given that it had particular and timely attractions, it could then spread rapidly. The standard allowed a proprietary technology to emerge from the research laboratories and gave it the potential to colonise the world. It did not create either the technology or the market conditions that allowed it to be so successful. However, if WiFi had not been standardized, then it probably wouldn�t have been able to meet the demand created by the market, as there would have been only a few innovators with products ready to fill the void.

The message is that a standard can be an essential vehicle for allowing a technology to realise its potential, but it is not necessarily responsible for the innovation itself. Put another way, a standard is not necessarily innovative; it just means that the technology in question is available in a non-proprietary way and there is likely to be a community to support it.

So, what is the real value of a standard? Given widespread adoption, a standard presents purchasers with choice. It breaks reliance on proprietary technologies and the monopolies that can result. It helps ensure interoperability between vendors and, at least partially, guarantees some degree of product consistency. Given a choice between a vendor that supports a widely deployed standard and one that supports a proprietary technology, even if the proprietary version is superior, the standards based approach will probably win. Remember Betamax? Video 2000? Ultimately, from the point of view of the customer, this helps achieve vendor independence.

Let�s consider another example. SS7 is a protocol used to control call setup and tear down and advanced services in core digital telephony networks. It builds on the principles of Common Channel Signalling, which were conceived in the 1960s in the research laboratories of companies such as AT&T who understood the limitations of the then prevailing signalling systems that relied on in-band technologies. Visionary in concept, it was recognised that, to be truly successful, the enterprise would require the participation of telephone companies and equipment vendors from around the world. Although the architecture and principles may have been imagined in closed laboratories, the actual implementation was handed over to a public body, the International Telecommunications Union, to which telephone companies and vendors could contribute. The process of delivering the standard took many years and resulted in the emergence of the first concrete standard in 1980. However, it was not until the 1990s that widespread deployment took place. Today, telephone networks the world over depend upon SS7. It would be impossible to imagine such success without the support of recognised, publicly available standards.

The key innovation -- the recognition that such a system was needed -- took place behind the closed doors of the proprietary world, but the real achievement was to pass the responsibility for the genesis of a standard on to a public body. So, what can we learn from this? As Shaw suggests, innovation depends upon unreasonable men, or as we might say �independent visionaries,� but these innovations can be lost without the framework of standards and a standards-based community to give them legitimacy and to present innovations to the market. Standards create opportunity. Once the opportunity is created, market conditions may allow a standard to become ubiquitous. However, if a standard does gain acceptance, then it will displace alternatives until a new model emerges in a standardized way.

Standards, then, are important precisely because they ensure conformity and consistency and for no other reasons. If you are a purchaser of equipment, you want to be sure that the solution you choose works with other components on the market. You do not want to follow a path to obscurity, particularly in today�s fast moving world. You want to maximise your choices and the opportunity to negotiate with multiple suppliers. Standards give you that choice, providing a reference point for equipment purchasing decisions. Furthermore, standards relieve the development community from having to re-invent solutions: once an innovation is embodied as a standard, the community is free to spend their energy on things that have not been invented. Real innovation probably happens outside of the standards process, but to leverage such innovations, they need to be brought into the mainstream. Standards represent a classical compromise, continually evolving in an organised fashion. They may not be the �best� solution, but they should represent the optimum and, at the very least you will be able to rely on them.

Guy Redmill is Senior Market Development Manager for Brooktrout Technology. Brooktrout is a leading supplier of media processing, network interface, call control and signal processing products that enable the development of applications, systems and services for both the packet-based network and the traditional telephone network. For more information visit the company online at www.brooktrout.com.

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