Ducks. Sleds. Cardboard boxes. Candles. What do these all have in common?
I don’t know. That is why I asked you.
What is this post about? Electrical outlets. Printers. Batteries. Computers. And a bunch of other stuff, but we will focus on these for now.
What do all these items have in common? They are standardized.
What is a standard? A standard is a defined specification for how specific technologies work. Standards also define how components interact with each other.
Example time. Picture an electrical outlet. Unlike you, I am not going to stick a fork into it, because that would be stupid.
There are a lot of electrical appliances that do all sorts of different things. Blenders blend, vacuums… suck. Hey, maybe you are a vacuum? Anyway, back to the point. All these devices use the same electrical outlets.
How does that work? All these different devices are made by different companies. How do they all work with the same outlets? The answer is standards.
Electrical outlets are standardized. The standard defines that they have certain ports and shape and also that they will deliver 120 volts (in North America). That is true whether you are in California or Alaska. Because the standard is adhered to by manufacturers, electricians and so on, these electrical devices can be made to rely on outlets because it is known that they will work the same everywhere.
Another way to describe standards is to speak in terms of interfaces.
An interface is like a contract. It defines the interactions between two parties. Consider standard AA batteries. AA batteries have a defined interface: they are exactly 50 mm long and 14 mm in diameter (technically, they are 49.2–50.5 mm long and 13.5–14.5 mm in diameter). They also have a positive and negative terminal. That is the defined interface for AA batteries. The internal composition of the battery can change as long as the interface – the way we interact with the battery – is the same.
As with electrical outlets, AA batteries are used all over the place. The reason they are used all over the place is because they have a defined interface. A company can design a device to use AA batteries. They know it will work because they fulfilled their end of the contract, and the battery manufacturers will fulfill theirs. In other words, they both designed their products to work with the interface.
This allows parts to be interchanged with equal parts. For example, electrical devices don’t care what brand of batteries you use, they simply must match the interface.
Standards define interfaces – in many ways, they are the same thing.
Why Interfaces Are Important
Interfaces are important. More important than your Little League trophy, and almost as important as me. But why?
Interfaces are important because they let us make stuff. Consider the electrical outlet example again. There are a massive amount of products that make use of the outlet interface. How could any of these products be made without outlets? The company could design some sort of power source, but no other products would use it. Nothing would get done.
Computers are another excellent example. Think of all the products you can buy that connect to your computer via USB ports. Without a standard interface, each of them would need their own proprietary port. As a result, nobody would buy them. Or, if they did, they would be limited to products made by the same company. In contrast, computers today are incredibly modular. This is possible because interfaces exist for all hardware components.
The Internet is also a shining example of the power of standards. The Internet and the Web on top of it both consist of many, many standardized protocols. This is what enables all computers to communicate with each other, whether they are in the same room or across the world from each other.
Standardization also carries a useful economic feature: there is more specialization.
I am special, you say. I am sure that is true, but that isn’t what I am talking about.
Specialization means focusing on a narrow range of products that a company is best at making. For example, Intel makes CPUs. They don’t make cars, clothing, pinatas or other things. They focus on making CPUs. That is their specialization.
The thing to note here is that, generally speaking, a company doesn’t make its products from raw materials. Instead, it obtains them from somewhere else. For example, consider a computer manufacturer like Dell. Dell doesn’t make computer components like CPUs or memory. Instead, they buy them from companies that do, assemble them together, and sell the completed product.
This is because it is more efficient – cheaper, faster and so on – for companies to make what they are best at making.
Note that this means products rely on other products in other to work. For example, people don’t buy CPUs by themselves. Well, they do, but only when buying other products that interface with it like a motherboard. A CPU by itself is useless.
How does this work out for Intel? Nobody will buy their product unless it is sold alongside the related products. They could make all the components themselves – and, long ago, that is how computers were made – but it wouldn’t be very efficient because they would no longer be specialized.
Solution? Interfaces. Various standards dictate how the components of a computer – CPU, memory, storage and so on – interact with each other. This allows each company to specialize in making their own product because they know it will work with all the others through the agreed-upon standards. The resulting product is better for it.
Most standards are public and open. It does not cost anything to comply with them. This is not always the case though.
For example, the mp3 file format is quite widespread. Many different products comply with this standard (i.e. play mp3 music) because people had large collections of mp3 music already. However, the mp3 file format is proprietary – in order to make software that encodes or decodes the format you need to have a license from the owners (though the patents for mp3 have mostly lapsed at the time of writing).
Similarly, the FAT filesystem is patented by Microsoft. Yes, it really is called FAT. It stands for File Allocation Table. Anyway, as with mp3 files, FAT is primarily supported because it is compatible everywhere. It is used on most flash drives, SD cards and similar small storage devices. Microsoft has sued a number of companies for infringement, including Motorola for its use of FAT in Android.
Proprietary standards aren’t only found in software. HDMI is also patented. A royalty is required for every product that includes an HDMI port.
As you can see, proprietary standards can end up being the most popular – unlike you.
All the standards discussed so far are open. This means the standard is publicly published and anybody can implement it. The reasons for not implementing an open standard are generally legal in nature.
Closed standards, in contrast, are like trade secrets. The standard is only known by a limited number of companies. As a result, others cannot implement the standard.
For example, imagine that you have a special printer. For some reason, in order to print, a program has to tell the printer a special number, say “25031.” The company making the printer doesn’t have a problem with this because they know what the number is. Others trying to make a printing program will not know the number, and so will not be able to make something that interacts with the printer.
Most closed standards are forms of DRM. The goal of DRM is to control access to certain resources, such as preventing a user from copying files. If the standard for the DRM file formats was open people would be able to crack the content and pirate it. To make it more effective, it is a closed standard.
Typically, closed standards are only implemented by programs or equipment made by the originating company and cannot be used apart from them. For example, an ebook may only be readable using the seller’s reader app.
Despite being closed, many of these standards are reverse-engineered. For example, gaming consoles are usually fairly locked down, only to be used in ways the manufacturer deems fit. This is enforced by many closed standards. Despite these measures, people have managed to make significant modifications to their consoles, often by using security exploits.