Standards and Standards Groups: Are We Losing Our Way?
TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
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Industry standards have always been a difficult topic. The only reason we have them at all is that many markets simply wouldn’t work without them. We can’t have four versions of 120V wall outlets and plugs all competing for market share. There wouldn’t be a market to compete for. In the leading-edge computing industry it may not be so obvious because designers could possibly hesitate to introduce some real innovation for fear that it would not fit an existing standard. And, advanced though it might be, it would have to establish itself in a brand new market segment with nothing to back it up. Still, lacking existing standards that might actually cause such hesitation, many companies strike off on their own anyway into new territory hoping to attract a following that will grow into an actual recognized market. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
To be fair, our industry has always had a bumpy ride when it comes to standards. A couple of real successes, however, have been VME and CompactPCI. Having said that it is hard to nail down exactly what set of synergistic circumstances has brought that about. It is definitely some critical mix of technology, market need and perception, personalities and commitment to name just a few.
For example, a certain remark has stuck with me since the introduction of VME back in 1981. Someone whose name I have long forgotten said, “We have agreed on the design of a coliseum in which to compete.” That represents a balance of common interest and competitive, entrepreneurial spirit that has worked. The fact that VITA and its set of standards and participants have held together for all these years and continued to upgrade specifications is proof of that. A similar observation can be made regarding PICMG.
I wish I could say that things were going as well in the world of small form factor modules, where it is beginning to look like we are in an unfortunate period of fragmentation. Without taking sides or passing individual judgment, it seems there are now at least four groups active in the arena: the PC/104 Consortium, the Small Form Factor SIG, to a certain extent PICMG, and now the newly formed Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET). For starters, that’s just plain too many. The reasons for this depend on whose ox is being gored or which particular interests are in play. Whatever. It’s too many.
I am certain that a big contributing factor is simply the pace of innovation in this arena. An innovator or a company thinks they have a great idea and doesn’t want to wait around while some standards committee files its nails over every miniscule point. So in addition to existing standards, we get “logo clubs” that are based on a specification that is released but called a “standard.” But there is no way to enforce such a specification and hence no way to assure a customer that there will be a second source or that the next year things will not have been introduced with incompatibilities. But that’s supposed to be one of the reasons for a standard—to build customer confidence.
Now with these different groups, I am apprehensive that more than one of them may begin to claim to be the guardian of a standard previously championed by another, leading to fragmentation of standards themselves. Maybe that’s not a big worry, but it is there. Then there are conflicting interests of individual players that begin to take precedence over the common interest. It is difficult to argue with this because in any event a given company will only support the common interest if it thinks it is in its own interest to do so. An easier target—but probably as futile to deal with—are the sometimes massive egos that plop themselves in the way of cooperation.
For all that, and in these difficult economic times, the situation is not good. Standards may represent the design of a coliseum to us, but to a customer they are a guide and a reassurance without which there arises doubt, lack of confidence and hesitation to invest in any of our stuff. Maybe he’d rather have something he knows will work rather than cutting-edge uncertainty. And the more cutting-edge something is, the more reassurance a customer is going to need. But we all know that.
It might be tempting to just plead with everybody to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya, but it’s really simpler than even that. If this fractioning of standards groups and goals does not somehow get resolved, everyone is going to suffer—vendors, OEMs and customers. And by extension, the broader economy will not be helped either. It might also be tempting to end with some sort of admonition, or a croak of doom. But I will be content to point to the situation. We all know it can be fixed. We can decide whether we want to play in a first-class stadium to big and paying crowds, or whether we wind up playing stick ball in the street.