The list of milestone contributions to the world's most relevant industry standards includes several winners and finalists of the European Inventor Award, the annual tribute to inventors organised by the European Patent Office (EPO).
Technical standards are a major driver of innovation in our globally connected world. Some of the world's most popular consumer products feature industry standards - from consumer electronics and household appliances all the way to building components.
From an industry perspective, international standards ensure that all manufacturers developing products in a certain field are on the same page. Quite literally: The ISO 216 paper size standard, for instance, helps producers of a variety of products adhere to the same page format - 210 mm × 297 mm - including A4 printer paper, mailing envelopes and file binders, as well as computer printers and scanners.
"In an internationally connected marketplace, we need industry standards and interoperability to encourage new developments. This is especially true in fields where many small companies are involved, for example mobile communications and smart electrical grids," says Gerard Owens, co-ordinator for public policy issues at the EPO.
Owens also points to the role of standards in supporting free enterprise: "Nobody owns a standard. It is agreed upon by key players in a field and registered with the standards organisation to enable a multitude of companies to effectively engage in new technologies in their segment."
Where numerous patented technologies are included in some of the world's most powerful standards, they may be organised in so-called "patent pools". These are clusters of patents traded in a pool by their patent holders with the goal of simplifying the licensing of patents to other companies either for free or through "fair and reasonable" licensing fees.
One of the world's first patent pools was formed in 1856. At the time, US sewing machine manufacturers Grover, Baker, Singer, and Wheeler & Wilson accused each other of patent infringements. Ultimately, all parties came to a historic agreement. Instead of pursuing legal action, they pooled their patents and set up the Sewing Machine Combination to handle manufacturing on a mass scale.
Today, some of the most influential industry standards and patent pools are based on contributions made by winners and finalists of the European Inventor Award (EIA). Here is an overview of selected inventions:
Developed by Karlheinz Brandenburg at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology in Germany, MP3 is now the international standard for audio coding. The rise of MP3 files single-handedly created a paradigm shift within the music industry, and in 2006 Brandenburg earned a nomination as a finalist for the European Inventor Award.
Patents relating to MP3 technology are grouped in a patent pool managed by Technicolor SA, the licensing representative for MP3 patents.
For one of the world's most powerful computer technology standards, look no further than USB (Universal Serial Bus). Invented by a team led by Ajay V. Bhatt, USB is a centralised method for connecting computers to external devices in an easy, plug-and-play fashion.
Bhatt and his team won the EIA in the Non-European Countries category in 2013. USB is now a computer protocol de facto standard ensuring a compatible connection for a wide variety of devices worldwide. Key patents related to the USB standard are held by a patent pool managed by the Universal Serial Bus Implementers Forum and made available free of charge to companies and developers.
When computer users switch between networks in different locations, identifying computers and assigning access rights is a logistical challenge. Here's where mobile IP technology helps laptop computers and mobile devices connect to computer networks on the go. Invented by Charles E. Perkins at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, mobile IP technology helps to identify devices, even when logging on to new networks.
The invention became an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard in 1996, and Perkins was a finalist for the EIA in the Non-European Countries category in 2006.
The early days of wireless computer connection technologies saw the rise of a wide number of competing protocols. Developers worked on their own isolated standards - until the arrival of Bluetooth. Originally developed in the mid-1990s by Dutch engineer Jaap Haartsen - an EIA finalist in 2012- Bluetooth technology is now an industry standard for connecting wireless devices worldwide.
Today, more than 19 000 companies are part of the Bluetooth patent pool, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, an organisation that allows for the free usage of Bluetooth-related patents.
Enjoying high-speed internet access used to necessitate a cable connection to a local network. All this changed with the Wi-Fi wireless connection standard, developed by a team including Australian engineer Dr John O'Sullivan in the mid-1990s. Wi-Fi has its origins in radio astronomy and makes use of tools initially developed to look at the heavens using carrier waves to transmit information.
The Wi-Fi team won the EIA in 2012 in the Non-European Countries category, and Wi-FI is a standard created and maintained by the IEEE LAN/MAN Standards Committee. In addition, a patent pool called the Wi-Fi Alliance promotes Wi-Fi technology and certifies products for interoperability. Since Wi-Fi was first marketed in the mid-1990s an estimated 6 billion Wi-Fi enabled devices have been manufactured - and counting!
The name of the Bluetooth technical standard is based on Scandinavian Viking history. "Bluetooth" is the English translation of "Blåtand," the nickname of tenth-century king Harald I, who united quarrelling Danish tribes into a single kingdom. Similarly, Bluetooth unites divergent communication protocols into one international standard. The Bluetooth logo is a combination of the runes Hagall and Bjarkan, which are the initials of "Harald Bluetooth".