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Standard Rules for “Industry Standards”

COLIN MCCRACKEN & PAUL ROSENFELD

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Every few years, people rush to use some word or phrase that means something different to everybody who hears it. In the political arena, the phrase du jour is “fiscal responsibility.” In the embedded market, it’s “industry standard.” With so many new “industry standards” being waved about, we really need to define some phraseology, so that system OEMs can understand at a glance what they are getting. We’d like to suggest some rules that can be adopted and used consistently throughout the industry by both suppliers and the trade press alike.

Many new products today are described as meeting a new industry standard, the specification of which is published by the announcing company. Let’s get one thing straight right at the beginning: If only one company manufactures a product designed to a specific form, fit or function, it is not an industry standard, regardless of whether a “specification” has been published or not. It is and will remain a “proprietary solution” until another company builds something that is compatible. 

But not all compatibility is equal. Let’s say Company B introduces a product that is form, fit and function compatible with Company A. If Company B is simply distributing Company A’s product (whether or not under a new name), it is still a proprietary solution. But if Company B designs and introduces a compatible product, we have a “second source.” Note that having Company B simply endorse the specification doesn’t qualify either. They must actually design, manufacture and distribute their own product. If not, it’s still a proprietary solution. If Company C comes along and introduces a product that adheres to the specification and is not simply distributing Company A or Company B’s product, then we can finally open the door to using the term industry standard. But there are a few more rules we need to apply before we can go there. 

First, the specification must be freely available for download, without registration, log in or licensing of any kind. Second, the technology must be unencumbered by any patent, trade secret or intellectual property constraint. Thirdly, the copyright on the specification must be owned by an independent standards organization and not by Company A, B or C, individually or together. Fourth, Companies B and C must have designed their products solely using the information provided in the specification and without any under the table help from Company A (including schematics or any other design material not available freely to the general public). Fifth, the specification must contain some form of license that allows it to be reproduced and distributed freely, but disallows the modification and creation of derivative works. After all, we don’t want to confuse the market with a set of “standards” that have a similar name and similar function, but are different.

Note that it is OK to have a logo that is trademarked by the standards body, and is licensed for use by any vendor that wishes to indicate to the market that his product complies with the specification. It is also OK for the standards group to charge a fee for use of the logo or provide it only to members.

So how does this play out in the real world?  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Standards group S introduces a new specification. Until at least three companies introduce products to the market, the group can only say that a specification for a proposed new industry standard has been released. 

Company D introduces a new product (or family) and wishes to promote this as an industry standard. The company may have a specification available for download by any interested party. They may offer the spec to an existing standards group or create a new one. But they may not use the words “industry standard” to describe their product or specification until two other companies introduce compatible products and the specification bears the copyright of an independent standards organization. We’ll have more to say about the “create your own standards group” in a future column.

So how might we begin to enforce this? It’s unlikely that the supplier community has the discipline to follow through. There are numerous violators of these rules. So we call on the trade press and editorial community to reject product press releases that use these terms loosely or improperly, and to edit technical articles to provide a precise and consistent definition for what is being offered. The cost to do this right is minimal. The value for OEMs: Priceless.