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Standards, Today and Tomorrow: Will There Be a World of Difference?




  • The enticements of a Friday night in San Francisco generally are not a boon to attendance at Saturday morning symposia.  But, today, early risers were rewarded with a wonderful talk by Lew Branscomb, who commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the National Institute of Standards and Technology—the organization I represent.  A physicist by training, Lew spent a very productive two decades at NIST, then known as the National Bureau of Standards.  His last three years—from 1969 to 1972—were spent as director.  From NIST, he went to IBM to become chief scientist and vice president.  And from there, he went on to Harvard to direct its Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program.
  • My career path runs opposite of Lew's.  I came to NIST after spending 22 years at IBM.  The last four were on assignment to SEMATECH, where I was director of lithography.  I also have been deeply involved in the development of standards under the umbrella of SEMI—that's Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International.
  • Though my resume might suggest otherwise, I'm really not partial to organizations known by acronyms or abbreviations.  That's FYI.
  • NIST is one of this nation's oldest scientific organizations, and standards are organic to what we do.  Our job, by the way, is not to regulate.  Rather, it is to facilitate and, sometimes, to coordinate.  We're the nation's measurement authority, not its measurement police.
  • Measurements, however, are integral to many varieties of standards—those specifying, for example, the dimensions of screw threads, the diameter of optical fibers, the content of steel alloys, electromagnetic compatibility requirements, the performance of machine tools or robots, and so on.  So, NIST often is called upon to contribute its technical expertise as standards are being developed.
  • As important—and sometimes more—our impartiality and neutrality can be key to achieving industry agreement on a particular standard.  Today, it seems, there is a growing need for neutral forums to negotiate responses to standards-related issues.

About Standards

  • The topic of standards is, at once, pedestrian and profound.  Standards are pedestrian in the sense that they are everywhere—so commonplace that they are taken for granted and, in some quarters, are considered to be about as interesting as watching grass grow or paint dry.
  • But remove this inconspicuous platform of technical support, and life as we have come to expect it begins to unravel.  Laboratories, companies, and entire industries may become less efficient.  Transactions may take longer to conclude.  Products may work with a smaller set of other products and services.  And so on, and so on.
  • So, yes, standards are profound in the sense that they are fundamental to this nation's economy and vital to world commerce.
    • Indeed, members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)—another international professional organization with a long and proud past—ranked the promulgation of standards among the top 10 engineering accomplishments of the last century.  Standards shared top-10 honors with such accomplishments as the inventions of the automobile and airplane.
    • NIST, I should point out, has been a significant contributor to the building of our nation's standards infrastructure.  In 1909, we helped to establish the American Engineering Standards Committee, the forerunner of the American National Standards Institute.  And by 1927, NIST was cooperating with more than 200 organizations on matters related to standards and to testing.
      • Many of these organizations still exist and continue to develop standards, usually for particular industrial sectors.  Examples are ASME and the American Society for Testing and Materials, or ASTM.
      • Traditionally, these are the kinds of organizations most closely associated with the development of voluntary standards—in the United States, at least.  
  • Today, standards are both exalted and vilified. Consider these statements about standards:
    • First pair of statements; please answer, "yes" or "no" for each.
              Standards stifle innovation.
              Standards are platforms for innovation.
    • Second pair of statements; again, answer, "yes" or "no" for each.
              Standards promote trade.
              Standards impede access to export markets.
    • Third pair of statements. 
              Standards are for the market to decide. "Yes" or "No."
              Next:  Standards are matters of public interest and even geopolitical interest. "Yes" or "No."
    • Final pair of statements;  you know the drill.
              Standards foster monopolization.
              Standards lower barriers to market entry.

ANSWER:  Yes, to all of the above.  That's right, yes to all.  Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of standards and standardization.

  • Now, let's explore some of these seemingly contradictory aspects of standards.
    • For good and for bad, standards are a nearly pervasive influence on commerce.  The OECD—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—estimates that 80 percent of world merchandise trade is impacted by standards and regulations that embody standards.
    • On the positive side, for example, standards are means to ensuring satisfactory compliance with health, safety, and environmental requirements.
    • On the negative side, standards—or the regulations that embody them—can be duplicative, non-value-added requirements—different pieces of red tape created for largely the same purpose.
      • For one example:  The Transatlantic Business Dialogue attributes up to 10 percent of the cost of designing and developing a new automobile to differing or duplicative requirements.
      • For another:  Hewlett Packard's director of corporate standards has estimated that, worldwide, the number of regulations and standards pertaining to "information technology equipment" has increased sixfold since 1989.
    • Standards can influence the market in other ways, usually in combination with other competitive factors.  Is the fact that, soon, Motorola will no longer manufacture mobile telephones in the United States a downstream consequence of U.S. inertia in the standards arena?
      • This is a very complex situation, but some people point to the market-shaping impact of the European Community decision to adopt a single cellular telephone standard.  This created a vast, unified home that helped Nokia leapfrog past Motorola and become the market leader.
      • Standards can have high-stakes impacts.  They can tip the balance in favor of certain competitors and even certain national economies.
  • Standards have a chameleon-like identity—colored by the environment in which they are viewed.  For example:
    • From the perspective of a rapidly growing, fast-changing high-tech industry, such as wireless communication devices, for example, or from the perspective of a mature and more predictable industry, such as machine tools or automobiles.
    • From the perspective of a technology leader or a follower.
    • A user of technology or a vendor of technology.
    • Or from the perspective of a multinational firm or that of a small company largely focused on the domestic market and, maybe, a handful of export outlets.

Signs of Change

  • No matter where you sit, however, you're likely to find some dissatisfaction with the way standards are promulgated, . . .  the way they are implemented (or ignored), . . . or the way in which compliance—or conformity—with standards is determined. 
  • Here are a few indications that people believe improvements are needed:
    • the proliferation of ad hoc standards consortia,
    • the so-called Open Source Movement,
    • the development of National Standards Strategies in the United States and Canada, and
    • continuing debate over what constitutes an international standard.
  • To state the obvious, standards organizations and standardization processes are evolving.  Unknown, however, is whether forces at work today—globalization, the rapid diffusion of technology, and so on—have pushed this evolution to an inflection point, a point of punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a term from biology.

Multiplicity of Standards Systems

  • The U.S. National Standards Strategy, which ANSI and NIST spearheaded, responds to today's reality of multiple standards systems, and it recognizes the need for a diversity of approaches among sectors.
  • The overall goal of the strategy is to ensure that U.S. technical input is reflected in global standards, which would help to reduce the potential for trade barriers.
  • The strategy is actually a set of guiding principles that establishes a basis for collective action, as appropriate.  Obviously, this is a judgment call.  But a sound strategy can help companies and other organizations to recognize when it is in their best interest to act cooperatively.
    • To fully appreciate why a U.S. standards strategy was developed, you should know that there are about 550 U.S. organizations that develop standards for domestic and, often, international use.
    • This diversity can be healthy.  It also can be the source of chaos and confusion—especially, at the international or global level.
    • ISO and IEC—that's the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission—are examples of increasingly influential bodies where, according to some observers, U.S. technology interests should be championed more coherently and more effectively.
      • The system of one nation, one vote, is seen as advantaging regional interests, such as the European Union.
    • Obviously, there are many elements to the strategy, and Mark Hurwitz, the president and CEO of ANSI, can provide more details.

Information Technology:  Is It Different?

  • But is a National Standards Strategy even relevant to the information technology sector, where standards are matters of great concern?  After all, most of the 150 or so standards consortia and ad hoc standards alliances focus on IT needs.  These organizations are situated outside the traditional realm of standards.
    • They sprouted and multiplied because of the slow pace of standards development—especially achieving consensus—in traditional bodies.  Quite literally, Internet time and standards time are many years apart—and, more important, many product cycles apart. 
  • There is at least one area where the more formal standards development process—with its principles of openness, transparency, balance, and consensus—can make a contribution to the spread of e-commerce and other Internet technologies.  That's the area of interoperability standards.
    • Interoperability standards specify how devices communicate with each other.  They are absolutely essential infrastructural elements of systems, networks, and networks of systems.
    • Standardization efforts in this area should be global and they should be driven by technical superiority, not by the jockeying of geopolitical interests.
    • The public good content of interoperability standards is high.  The costs associated with interoperability problems also are high.
      • Imperfect interoperability imposes huge costs on U.S. industry—at least $1 billion per year in the automotive supply chain alone.
    • Yet, such standards also should be grounded in the market—although public interest may require something more than a strictly market-based solution.
    • That "something more" could be a timely technical or financial assist from government—and not a new regulation.

Needed: Cooperation, Collaboration

  • For the wireless Internet, e-commerce technologies, telemedicine, intelligent transportation systems, and other realms of  IT, standardization of infrastructure is crucial.  It often requires the contributions of government and industry.  It also requires international cooperation.
  • Here are a few good examples of public and private collaboration on standards:
    • The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, has provided focus and direction in the development of standards for intelligent transportation technologies—everything from the collision-avoidance systems now entering the market to far more futuristic technologies under development.
      • With U.S. standards developers (such as the Society of Automotive Engineers), it developed a common standards taxonomy and recently launched a program for testing standards.  The Department of Transportation also is helping to coordinate U.S. participation in ISO and other organizations that also are developing standards for intelligent transportation systems.
    • At NIST, we also contribute to the successful development and deployment of advanced information technologies.  Some of our work is aimed at accelerating the process of industry standardization and keeping it solidly focused on technical issues.  Some examples:
      • NIST led the global effort to develop the Advanced Encryption Standard, which will be used to ensure that encrypted sensitive data cannot be decoded by anyone but the intended parties.  The innovative process broke new ground in international cooperation.
      • NIST's XML Conformance Test Suite is enabling industry to exploit the full range of possibilities that XML—the rapidly spreading Internet language—creates for e-commerce applications.  We teamed up with OASIS—the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, an international consortium with about 200 participating members—to refine and extend NIST-developed software tests that permit people to make sure that their XML systems conform with industry standards.
      • NIST's technical expertise and impartiality were tapped by industry in its efforts to develop and implement standard reference guidelines for emerging biometric authentication techniques.
      • With the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, NIST established the National Wireless Electronic Systems Testbed.  This is an important facility for collaborative system-level measurements in support of wireless standardization.  The testbed has attracted more than 80 companies that are developing high-bandwidth, wireless technologies and services for the Internet.
      • To this point, N-WEST has been primarily targeted at Wireless Metropolitan Area Networks, but its applicability is much more general.
  • NIST plays a variety of roles in support of private-sector standardization efforts.  As the last few examples illustrate, we facilitate, convene, and provide technical expertise.  We follow industry's lead and work with industry to add value.
  • NIST also supports trade agreements by helping to build the underlying infrastructure (e.g., conformity assessment) necessary to put these agreements into effect.
    • An example is the Mutual Recognition Agreement on telecom and electronic products that we just implemented with the European Union.  We helped build the infrastructure that enables mutual acceptance of product tests performed on either side of the Atlantic.
  • We also coordinate federal agencies' use of voluntary standards, a transition that is beginning to accelerate.  This should be viewed a very significant development, especially when you consider that the federal government (especially the Department of Defense) has been one of the world's largest developers of standards. 
  • The number of jobs that NIST could do exceeds our resources.  So the standards-related efforts that we do undertake are chosen, using these decision-making criteria:
    • long-term focus;
    • significant industrial need;
    • potential for high value added contribution; and
    • adequate resources to do the job right.
  • Keep in mind that lots of standardization efforts succeed on a regular basis without publicity or undue strife.  Also keep in mind that, although many standards are developed, far fewer are adopted and implemented on the scale that motivated their creation.
  • Over the longer term, we should work to eliminate inefficiencies, inconsistencies, and the like.  At the international level, however, we should also accept that there always will be heterogeneity in standards and regulations.
  • Because science and technology are evolving rapidly and because more and more nations are hitching their economic futures to technology development, standardization always will be a bone of contention lurking in the affairs of industry and nations.  We must continue to learn as we go.
  • I often say you don't have to be bad to get better.  When it comes to standards, we clearly can—and must—get better.
  • Thank you.
Created October 14, 2009, Updated December 30, 2016