Expert interview: The importance of industry standards

It's difficult to imagine a world without industry standards. They ensure that different computer products interact seamlessly, that we can make calls and access information on our mobile phones, and that our televisions are able to receive and interpret broadcast signals. And that's only scratching the surface. There are several thousands of standards that affect almost every aspect of our daily lives, ranging from petroleum products and solar panels to GPS navigation systems and medical devices.

In the first part of a two-part interview, Dr Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Standards Association (IEEE-SA), one of the world's leading standards developing organisations (SDOs), takes a closer look at industry standards and the ever-growing role they play in our lives.

Interview chapters:

What are industry standards? 

Man using wifi (JPG)What are industry standards exactly, and how do they work?

Konstantinos Karachalios (KK): Standards are published documents that establish specifications and procedures designed to maximise the reliability of products, materials and services people use every day. They are implemented in products used in nearly every facet of our lives, from aerospace and electronics to green technology, from transport to construction.

Standards address a broad range of issues. They make products work better, make them compatible and able to interact with other products, and safeguard consumer safety. They simplify product development and speed up the time it takes for a product to get to market.

In a nutshell, standards fuel the development and implementation of technologies that influence and transform the way we live, work and communicate.

Could you give an example of a widely recognised standard?

KK: The IEEE 802 family of standards is a perfect example of a well-known, market-driven standard in action. IEEE 802.11, often referred to as "Wi-Fi®", was originally conceived to interconnect wireless cash registers, but it evolved into a contribution that benefits society with revolutionary new mobile devices that the world could not have even imagined a decade ago.  

Wi-Fi already underpins wireless networking applications around the world, such as wireless access to the internet from our offices and homes, but also from airports, hotels, restaurants, trains and even aircraft - and the number of devices that are connected wirelessly is expanding at furious pace. The standard's relevance has grown further with the emergence of new applications, such as smart grids and monitoring technologies in the healthcare industry.

How are industry standards created?

USB and firewire cables (JPG)How are standards agreed upon?

KK: First, it is perhaps helpful to differentiate between de facto and consensus-based standards. A de facto standard refers to a standard that has been widely accepted and used in an industry without formal review and approval from a standards organisation. The PDF file format for printable documents and the DVD format are examples.

On the other hand, a consensus-based standard goes through a formal standards development process. Examples include Wi-Fi and FireWire. In such a case, standardisation communities at a standards developing organisation (SDO), such as the IEEE, IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) or ISO (International Organization for Standardization), objectively assess the feasibility and importance of a potential standard and then develop the standard, which is distributed and maintained by the SDO once it has been accepted.

So the IEEE first comes into play in the development of a standard?

KK: Yes. While an idea for a consensus-based standard is still at a conceptual stage, it is brought to the IEEE as a possible project. The project is evaluated by a global community of experts, through an open, consensus process, based on a set of criteria, which includes market relevance, technical progress and any overlap with existing work or other standards. Once the project is approved, a working group develops a draft of the standard, and its adoption is decided by consensus in a balloting group. From there, the IEEE-SA Standards Board makes a final decision on whether the standard should be adopted.

Who benefits from industry standards?

How do standards benefit companies, manufacturers and developers?

KK: Industry standards make it easier and cheaper for companies to access and use certain technologies. They can also provide manufacturers with real economic benefits, like access to new markets. This can significantly contribute to a corporation's bottom line and become a core part of its business strategy.

Sometimes, manufacturers and developers are able to turn to one organisation to access an entire ‘intellectual property palette' instead of having to negotiate licensing agreements with a large number of companies.

To gauge the impact standards have on industry, we might turn to figures from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The OECD estimates that standards and standard conformity directly affect roughly 80 percent of all world trade.

How do standards benefit consumers?

KK: Interoperability is a real benefit associated with standards. Consider it from a consumers' perspective: when you purchase a laptop, you expect that it will connect wirelessly to the internet no matter where you are.

For example, think about a time you might have been working at the office on an online document, then gone to a café and searched for convenient times for a movie playing nearby, and finally gone home to review and send emails.

Throughout the entire chain of events, not once did you have to think about which standards were being used, whether your laptop's wireless technology would work in these environments or whether there would be an issue with your computer's power supply. Interoperability of standards makes all of this - and much, much more - possible.

Standards also maintain choice for consumers, ensuring that several suppliers can supply similar but compatible products, maintaining competition and keeping prices low while offering a wider range of choices in any one category.

(In the second part of this interview, Dr Karachalios talks about the groundbreaking co-operation between the EPO and IEEE, the sometimes tenuous interaction between standards and patents, and the future of industry standards.)

The benefits of standards on a national and international level

Standards may firstly support national health and safety; electrical and fire hazard standards are a prime example. Furthermore, within any one country, the definition of standards may ensure compatibility and interoperability between different industries, thereby helping to develop more comprehensive and wider-reaching products and services.

In a world of increasing globalisation, these benefits are increased by an order of magnitude. European standards have been of great importance for the development of a single European market, and the trend is now towards ever-increasing international co-operation. International standards help to break down trade barriers and further world trade. The ever-expanding globalisation of the car industry is a prime example.

About the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA)

The IEEE-SA is one of the world's oldest and most recognised standards developing organisations. It has been developing standards for more than a century across a broad range of industries, which now include: power and energy, biomedical and healthcare, information technology, telecommunications, transport and many others.

Unlike various other international standards organisations which are based on treaties or extensions of national government standards organisations, the IEEE-SA is a voluntary body that determines community standards through consensus among its members.

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