What’s a standard?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Part of the discussion surrounding the various new organizations talking about standards creation (see “Video standards,” page 8), involves the meaning of that very word: “standard.” In a loose sense, a standard is the generally accepted way of doing things. What’s the standard greeting between two business people in the Western world? A handshake. But no formalized body has ever issued a statement outlining the correct way to perform such a handshake (and maybe this should be rectified). What my father taught me might more appropriately be called a specification: firm grip but not too forceful, one pump, look the person in the eye, then let go.

Obviously, in technology manufacturing, there are places where the hows and whys are agreed upon in more formal fashion. Standards bodies like IEEE, ANSSI, and even SIA (which is ANSSI-accredited), are created so that everyone knows how to shake hands in the same way. The work of PSIA or ONVIF will not result in a standard, necessarily. “It’s a specification, that’s right,” said David Bunzel, one of the organizers of the PSIA, about the document they’ve recently released, and it says so right in the title: “IP Media Device API Specification.” Bunzel said the PSIA is offering the document up for public comment and review, and after that process the group will decide which standards body might be most appropriate for reviewing it and possibly issuing it as an industry standard.

“It only becomes a standard when a standards body gets behind it,” agreed Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of the Americas for Axis, one of the three founders of ONVIF. “So let’s not call anything a standard until it actually is a standard.” Further, he wondered whether even standards issued by a group like ANSSI should be called standards: “ANSSI is only North American,” he noted. “What about Europe? And Japan? That’s not a worldwide standard.” Nilsson, as he usually does, makes a good point.

As discussion about the future of technology adoption in the security industry continues, it’s important to remember the power of nomenclature. What you call a standard, might seem to someone else like more of a specification, and a body you think is trying to create a standard might more accurately just be trying to create a specification for the purpose of challenging the industry to come up with something better.

The great thing about standards bodies and the process of standards creation is that they are generally all-inclusive. Before a standard reaches the marketplace, it goes through a discussion period where virtually anyone can comment and participate.
In fact, most bodies will tell you (and you’ve heard it in this space before) they need your help. Few people have the time for sitting on standards committees and making formal comments when they are needed. So, if you’re interested in the process, show it: Join the discussion and start shaking some hands.