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The Roundtable - Standards and Regulations

Mon, 04/11/2011 - 7:19am
Edited by Alix Paultre

AlixThe electronics industry deals with many regulations and standards, from those dealing with issues such as safety and infrastucture to those dealing with form factors and operational protocols. Standards and regulations done well can benefit everyone, while done poorly benefit no one. How they are addressed and applied can have a significant effect on the design process and the resulting product.

This month's Roundtable question is “How important do you feel regulation and standards are to the electronics industry? Do you feel they help development, or hinder it?” Our answers come from engineers at Fraunhofer, Microsemi, GreenPeak, and Texas Instruments. 

Matthias RoseOpen Standards and Today's Media Society
By Matthias Rose, Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS)

Open standards such as mp3, AAC and H.264 are very important in today’s media society as they are a driving force in the development of existing markets and the creation of new markets. The important role of open standards is based on their promise to guarantee interoperability. This is the fundamental prerequisite for the value chain of audiovisual production, distribution and play back. Without open standards, we would not be able to watch TV, listen to our favorite song or see the latest movie. All media rely on standards to guarantee that content can really be delivered and consumed.

It is the open standard mp3 that give us the confidence that we can really listen to the music we just bought online. It is the MPEG video codec H.264 that enables us to produce a video with our smartphone and instantly upload it to any social media platform. There are many more examples of how interoperability based on open standards enables today’s media world.

On a smaller scale, interoperability could also be achieved by closed systems. This is why it is not the only benefit to consider. Unlike closed systems and proprietary formats, access to open standards is not restricted. Every device manufacturer can include, for example, mp3 or H.264 in its device. Standards are not controlled by a single company, they are easy accessible and there are numerous providers of software implementations.

Finally, open standards are future proof. Standard bodies such as ISO-MPEG or ITU-T guarantee interoperability not only now but also in the far future. The first mp3 file still plays back on every mp3 player. At the same time, mp3, for example, has even improved over the years as MPEG only defines the output file format and the decoder necessary for playback. The encoder for generating the mp3 file can constantly be improved. Future-proof in two ways, MPEG codec files can be played back even in the far future, while new encoding technologies can be added to further improve the audio and video quality.

Open media standards such as MPEG codecs guarantee interoperability, are easily accessible and are future-proof. This unique set of benefits makes them a natural choice for all media applications. And that’s why they are an essential part of today’s media society. 

Cees LinksStandards: a blessing or a curse?
By Cees Links, GreenPeak Technologies 

First the curse: it usually takes an endless amount of time for a standard to come together, and once it is completed, often it feels like compromise that does not fully serve everyone's interests.

But clearly there are blessings as well. The main blessing of standards is the enormous "peace-of-mind” that makes large companies big supporters. Without standards it would be difficult to have machines or equipment efficiently co-operate. It would be expensive to develop workarounds to make gear talk to each other.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are clear examples of this.

Systems can be very complex. Every element of a large system that can be standardized essentially removes a significant uncertainty factor out of the complexity of the total system – or at least, isolates it and makes it manageable.

Furthermore a standard usually is based on a collective experience and cooperation which increases reliability and the long term availability. A good standard also creates an ecosystem of multiple vendors avoiding the single source trap (and at the same time, helps to drive down the cost) – all helping to further bolster this peace of mind.

This does not mean that there are no “botched standards” – standards that fail to be really adopted (eg. HiperLAN, IrDA) or pseudo-standards that essentially are proprietary solutions disguised by the user community as an open platform, where essentially there is just a single provider behind the technology (eg. EnOcean, Z-Wave).

Bottom line: standards are both a blessing and a curse – but looking at the bigger picture: the blessings dominate!  

Daniel FeldmanStandards Provide a Common Language
By Daniel Feldman, Microsemi

Without standards, communication is impossible. In the same manner without common languages between people we would be in a Babel tower, communication standards are essential for the electronics industry to generate products that are interoperable. And interoperability is what makes devices in many cases accepted.

For example, how good would be an iPod that can only be connected through proprietary cables to Apple computers, but would not work through USB ports on PC's? Apple tried that for two months and quickly saw the results. Standards, in general, allow products to grow in volume. The obvious disadvantage is that standards normally include compromises to allow many players to implement them, which could be seen as a way to "reduce innovation."

Microsemi believes that the contrary is true: smart engineers and marketers can take a barebones standard and use it as a basis for innovation and for continuous differentiation. And the best standards rely on innovations by specific companies. Power over Ethernet, for example, relies on some basic, established innovations which would not be useful and would not be adopted in mass if they were not part of the IEEE802.3 standard.”

Stephen LauThe Importance of Standards to the Electronics Industry
Stephen Lau, Texas Instruments

Standards are an extremely important element in the electronics industry as a platform for interoperability between manufacturers. Standards are much stronger than proprietary solutions, because they are developed collaboratively with input from a variety of contributors. Often, these contributors represent disparate user groups such as customers, electronics manufacturers, and vendors, that together form an ecosystem around the standard. Vendors can include companies that create products like tools in support of the standard, test its implementation, or supply building blocks to electronics manufacturers implementing the standard. It is the diversity of viewpoints gathered from these key stakeholders that makes a formal standard more technically valuable and longer-lived than proprietary technologies or solutions.

With their cooperative nature, standards developed by Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) like IEEE may take longer to finalize than those developed in a proprietary environment. However, though proprietary solutions can be developed quickly and may be technically sufficient, they are typically focused on solving a particular problem or issue and make tradeoffs that preclude their broader adoption. As a result, their field of use can be limited or worse, cause market fragmentation.

For electronics manufacturers, a non-proprietary standard developed by an SDO can be easier to implement, facilitating faster time-to-market and providing a level playing field for all electronics manufacturers. In some cases, “off the shelf” products supporting a standard may be available, making integration swift and effortless. Standards also tend to be exhaustive in their technical description, providing clear specifications for development. Because SDO-driven standards rely on collaborative input from an array of stakeholders, practical expertise gained from real-world learning experiences are incorporated during the standard’s development, eliminating the need for future re-engineering and contributing toward its longevity. For vendors addressing manufacturer and customers alike, standards allow costs to be spread out, improving lifetime net revenues. When proprietary solutions are prevalent, vendors must support multiple solutions, diluting resources from other customer-valued features.

Finally, standards reduce the number of complexities faced by customers. With better interoperability and interchangeability, past experiences and investments can be leveraged fully, extending value and improving ROI.
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