My relationship with standards is a mixed blessing

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My relationship with standards is a mixed blessing, how about you?

The other day I was mounting a hard drive I’d not used in many years, which led me to think about standards.  In this case it was a positive experience.  In general, HDD connectors have been fairly standard and this allows me to mount older drives fairly easily.

On the other hand, I’m an engineer and, when designing or rolling out new technology, standards can constrain creativity and innovation. An example of this might be a cell phone USB/power/data connector.  In my experience the USB/Power connector on a cell phone is often the first to fail and when it does you can no longer charge your phone, rendering it useless. Yet the need for standards made changing the connector a slow process.  This also applies to data transfer rates for both phones and computers.  Newer USB data transfer rates are dramatically improved but not always available perhaps impacted by the balance between using new technology and sticking with standards.

This brings us back to the original consideration regarding the pros and cons of standards.  It would be fantastic if we had a single, universal cell phone power connector with nearly unlimited data transfer bandwidth, and perhaps someday we’ll get there.  No more searching for the right cord.  No more finding yourself with the wrong charger and unable to charge your phone.  The goal would be like our AC outlets at home where one size fits all. We know, for all typical household devices, that we can plug things in.  Can you imagine if we had to have multiple cords for our toasters which we’d have to figure out before we could make our toast in the morning?  Yes, there’s a bit of that if you travel internationally, but within any given geography power connections are universal.

But therein lays the challenge.  Standards have weight and momentum.  Can you imagine if the United States tried to move to the European 220V system, or vice versa?  Just look at what happened with the movement to move from the Imperial measurement system to the Metric system.  It was a complete failure.  So, while it would be great if the whole world used the same power system it’s unlikely due to the momentum of standards in each geography.

Let’s focus on computers, IT, and how they’re affected by standards.  Power, whether for cell phones (USB) or for cell phone chargers (wall outlet) is fairly simple.  With technology the underlying capabilities are far more complex and those capabilities are advancing rapidly.  A reasonably good example of technological advances is Television or Monitor technology and resolution.

When Television was invented they had to use “interlacing” because they simply didn’t have the technology to provide a flicker free viewing experience so the maximum scan rate was 30 frames per second. The electronics simply weren’t fast enough to paint all 60 vertical lines of an image at one time. The resolution was poor and by today’s standards looked blurry.  Today 4K (4096×2160) is common and 8K (7680×4320) is available.  This evolution included a dozen, or more, video standards and at least a half a dozen different video connectors and a shift from analog to digital.  Today’s video capabilities are many orders of magnitude more advanced than the original televisions, about like a horse and buggy compared to the SpaceX Falcon as modes of transportation.  I’m a huge fan of the HDMI connectors, but how will that connector fare as video resolution and capabilities continue to increase?

The bottom line is that standards are our friends.  Standardization makes things dramatically easier for the consumers.  It makes things compatible and compatibility extends the useful life and functionality of products.  However, those same standards come with a price.  Their very success translates into momentum which can stifle innovation.  This is normal technological evolution but it’s important to understand the balance.  The next time something “just works” thank standards, but remember that those same standards can sometimes hamper innovation and progress.

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