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The bugaboo of standards

Roger Kay asks why the computer industry fears something that is in the best interests of consumers.

The latest annoying argument in the electronics industry seems to be following the usual pattern. In this case, two camps are fighting about the specification of the next-generation wireless standard known as IEEE 802.11n.

In this corner, we have the WWiSE group, and over there, in the purple trunks, we have the TgnSync. Meanwhile, the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, trying to act as referee, is a new committee made up of 27 members from both camps who just want to get going on a unified standard.

Making things more complicated, four of the large wireless LAN chipmakers--Atheros Communications, Broadcom, Intel and Marvell--have announced that they will work on the specifications together--entirely outside the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' (IEEE) process. At issue is whether wireless devices with speeds of up to 600mbps will be able to talk to each other.

Obviously, end users would like to see this happy result.

These days, the standards process is difficult and often fails. Constant bickering delays the introduction of useful technology. The 802.11n fight is just one among many. There's the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD dispute over the next-generation high-density DVD standard. And the particularly U.S. fight between is over the two major wide-area communications standards.

Constant bickering delays the introduction of useful technology. The 802.11n fight is just one among many.

There's MSN vs. America Online in the instant-messaging row. (It's interesting that Cerulean Studios' uber-client, Trillian, allows people to do what they really want: IM almost anybody with an IM address). How about that old sore, ? Despite all the workarounds, content is still not freely exchangeable between the two. A corollary of that tiff is the quarrel between iPod and all other MP3 players. A perennial theme here is Apple Computer's insistence on perfecting the experience for consumers at the expense of compatibility with other companies' offerings.

Against this sort of institutional squabbling, one can view the old CCITT standards and European telecommunications monopolies. For better or worse, the governments saw telecommunications as essential infrastructure and compatibility as a given.

In the United States, we even had a similar institution under the AT&T monopoly. The good that comes out of these semi-socialistic institutions is a unified platform on which services can grow. Europe and Japan, with their unified standards, are way out in front of the United States in advanced telephony.

In a free market, each company wants to rope in as many customers as possible with a technology that does not easily allow interchange with others. This is called "lock-in," the ability of a company to prevent its customers from wandering off to a competitor.

The market starts with a multiplicity of technologies in a new area and then coalesces into a few camps, often two in the end. These camps congeal into hard lumps of immutable, uncompromising material, hunkering down around their pet technologies. Their excuses are, "It's best for our customers," or "we believe in supporting the most excellent solution." The big loser is the consumer, who can't roam around the country without a (more expensive) multiband phone or move files from one computer to another.

Having lost its position as a neutral third party, the IEEE has devolved into a forum for politicking, spying and argumentation. Individual companies and consortia try to hijack the process to get their own standards ratified.

Years ago, there was this idea of an "industry standard," a public description of the best technical solution. Everybody who built to that standard could expect their products to interoperate. Early in the Information Age, Microsoft turned the concept of "standard" on its head by calling Windows first a de facto industry standard, and then, several years later, quietly dropping the de facto.

Thus, "standard" was no longer something that everybody could build to but was now a superhighway system--owned by a single company--that charged tolls to all entrants. Microsoft continues to use the term "industry standard" when referring to Windows. Tell that to the Mac heads.

One nasty potential consequence of the inability to generate and adhere to standards is the possible scuttling of the digital home. The Digital Living Network Alliance, composed of major computer and consumer electronics companies, backs a standard that allows digital entertainment products to interoperate. If everyone builds to the DLNA specification, then any device that a consumer buys will play nice with every other. Apple, which backs its own architecture, is not a DLNA member.

Consumers are going to build their digital homes over time, one device each holiday season. If some new device tries to put existing ones out of business, then consumers will reject the concept. The digital home can be realized only if every device the user buys works with all the others. Is the choice really between a closed, limited ecosystem and anarchy? How about a system of real standards? Or is that too much like socialism?