Setting Standards in the 21st Century

IEEE and other organizations strive for more widespread recognition and cooperation

5 November 2012

Standards matter. Without them, the Internet would be a sea of incoherent bits and bytes, your television couldn’t receive signals, and your camera might not fit on your tripod.

Such standards come from a variety of sources: IEEE and other engineering associations and standards bodies, manufacturing groups, field-specific forums and consortia—not to mention manufacturers whose proprietary interfaces become de facto standards through their acceptance in the marketplace.

IEEE and four organizations have recently signed a statement affirming the importance of the jointly developed set of OpenStand principles, which are available at the OpenStand website.

The Internet is probably the most pervasive—and complex—example of OpenStand principles at work. Its standards, developed by existing and ad hoc technical groups, were chosen by consensus and adopted voluntarily throughout the world.

OpenStand is driven by the recognition that the economics of global markets—fueled by technological innovation—drive global deployment of standards regardless of their formal status.

The principles demand a host of things: cooperation among standards organizations; adherence to due process, broad consensus, transparency, balance, and openness in standards development; commitment to technical merit, interoperability, competition, innovation, and benefit to humanity; availability of standards to all; and voluntary adoption.

Those principles underlie IEEE’s standards, as well as those of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)—the two standards development organizations (SDOs) that, along with IEEE, initiated OpenStand—and of many others. The Internet Society and the Internet Architecture Board also participated in launching OpenStand, and nearly 300 other standards organizations, corporations, and technology innovators have expressed support for it.

OpenStand had much to draw upon. Standards already developed and adopted via its principles include IEEE standards for the Internet’s physical connectivity, IETF standards for end-to-end Internet interoperability, and W3C standards for the Web. The Internet would not have happened without cooperation and close communication among those organizations and, says Russ Housley, who chairs the IETF, “Drawing crisp, clear lines between areas of work so you don’t step on each other.”

Adds Steve Mills, president of the IEEE Standards Association, “We recognize that the centers of expertise are in one organization or another, and we try to get the work done in the appropriate place. It avoids duplication of effort and competing standards.” And notes Jeffrey Jaffe, CEO of the W3C, “In designing the Internet and World Wide Web, the tech community created an amazingly effective way of rapidly creating technical standards to solve problems important for every aspect of human life.”

In design automation, too, standards developed under conditions similar to OpenStand have been adopted globally, and this approach is likely to take hold with technology for the smart grid, according to Mills and others in the OpenStand movement. Mills also notes that organizations such as ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials) have OpenStand-compatible approaches, and others have expressed interest in becoming involved.

“We think the principles work in any area of standards development, not just the Internet,” says Russ Housley, the IETF chair.

Standards creation by independent bodies is not new. IEEE, for example, has been issuing globally recognized standards for more than a century. But not all countries that write standards into their laws and regulations—and not all multinational companies that incorporate them into their procurement and design policies—formally accept standards developed outside the traditional international standards model.

“We felt it important for people to recognize that it’s not just the one-nation, one-vote organizations that make good standards,” says Housley, an IEEE affiliate member. “Governments that don’t already do so should recognize the validity of this way of developing standards and feel free to recognize these standards within their own regulations. And multinational companies should be looking at these standards the same way they do those from intergovernmental bodies.

“Obviously, IETF, IEEE, and W3C are not the only SDOs that follow OpenStand principles, and the many others doing this should also be recognized.”

Adds Leslie Daigle, the Internet Society’s chief Internet technology officer: “Where Internet standards organizations have sometimes been perceived as informal or ad hoc, the OpenStand principles make it clear that neither the organizations nor the successful standards they produce are ad hoc or accidental. There is structure and meaning here. It’s just different from the more formal standards-developing organizations we’ve known for the last century.

“These principles are important: They are what make our world work.”

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