Are standards technological socialism?

-April 30, 2014

What is a standards body’s proper role?

At a minimum, they should advise interoperability requirements, perhaps even prescribe those requirements. For each requirement, should they also dictate how those requirements are confirmed? That is, in addition to setting the minimal required performance specifications, should they also tell you how to make the measurements?

A few years ago during the Q&A period of the opening night #JitterPanel at DesignCon, we were having a warm discussion about how standards bodies work. An engineer who worked at a midsize company whose reputation was built on innovative memory technology stood up and, half facetiously, called standards “technical socialism.” We had a good laugh, but the idea stuck with me.

Before I start ranting, let me disclaim: I believe in standards. I think interoperability reduces chaos, improves technology, and that everyone, large companies and small, can benefit from them. I also think that the memory bus designer had a point. Further, my personal politics hover between moderate and boring. I understand socialism, am on board with socialized fire departments, police, education, highways, militaries, and so forth, but wouldn’t be a fan of socialized groceries, electronics, or blogging.

Back around the turn of the century, shortly after I left basic research and joined you here in the “real world,” I came upon an absurdity. A particular compliance test in a venerable compliance standard (I don’t want to name names, but it was FibreChannel) required a specific measurement technique that was patented and only achievable on a particular product manufactured by a single small company. There was no ambiguity in the spec; you had to use this patented technique or you wouldn’t be compliant.

Of course, it was a monumental political victory for the company. Imagine, everyone developing Fiberchannel equipment had to get their hands on your premier product.

It was not a victory for anyone else, least of all designers, because the technique didn’t work very well. Though, at the time, no test and measurement company had equipment that was much better. By spelling out the technique, the standard ruled out innovation. A genius working in the lab of any company who came up with an accurate approach couldn’t use it anyway.

Now, here we are, well into the 21st century and some standards (PCIe, sATA, USB, …) have implemented logo programs; when you pass the test, you get a sticker! Not only are standards spelling out techniques for testing, but they’re requiring developers to use specific test fixtures and software available from the SIG (special interest group).

Figure 1: Fully approved backplane!

I’m a fan of plugfests. They’re awesome exercises that seem to benefit everyone who attends, but should you have to attend the plugfest? Should you have to get a sticker?

A conspiracy theorist might argue that Intel, Cisco, IBM, HP, and <insert your favorite tech behemoth here> have arranged the situation to lock out pesky competition that cuts into their bottom lines—next thing you know, they’ll be buying politicians!

A utopian might argue that overbearing standards ease the entry of startups into the fray; after all, a few upfront dollars in exchange for testing processes can get them that gold sticker and put them on the playing field without having to think!

The conspiracist and the utopian arguments are both naïve. The reason small companies clean the clocks of huge companies, even when the playing field is tilted against them, is that the behemoths are too big to get out of their own way. The strength of small companies is in their ability to implement engineering genius without months of meetings, the disparagement of entrenched deadwood, or the idiocy of pointed-haired management.

But there’s an elephant in the room. There is a somewhat successful high tech company that has never played by these rules. You know who I’m talking about, that fruit company in Cupertino has developed some nifty gadgets and, but for a few notable exceptions, Apple doesn’t tolerate standards socialism. Should you?

  • Do standards enable or inhibit engineering brilliance?
  • How much of your job do you want the standards bodies to perform?
  • Or should we all design products in pursuit of stickers until chips, backplanes, memory busses start to look like NASCAR Toyotas?

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