MONDAY NOVEMBER 30 1998  ience & Technology  

STANDARDS: Driving down the fast track

Technological change has outpaced the standards authorities. They now plan to catch up, writes Andrew Baxter

GraphOne of the costliest, most hard-fought battles between incompatible product formats ended more than a decade ago with victory in the marketplace for the VHS video recorder system over its Betamax rival.
Millions of consumers were left angry and confused, while several electronics companies licked their wounds.

For years such battles have been a fact of life in consumer electronics and information technology, as more recent squabbles over Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) formats have shown. It may never be possible to eliminate them, but now these industries and the standards organisations which work with them are having a go.
Format battles occur partly because technological change and product development have far outpaced the creation of widely-agreed global product standards.
Over the past year, the world's big standards organisations have responded with "fast-track" or informal ways to help industry agree product specifications. One aim is to agree basic specifications before product launches to avoid battles in the marketplace.

Reaching a global consensus on a product standard can take five to seven years because of the range of interests - industries, consumers, governments and others - and the plethora of national and international committees involved. This may not matter in some industries where the pace of technology change is slower but in consumer electronics and IT the delay presents manufacturers with a problem.
"International standardisation is losing ground, compared to proprietary solutions, because people simply cannot wait," says Leonardo Chiariglione, head of television technologies research at CSELT, Telecom Italia's corporate research centre.
The committee system, he says, is not equipped to respond to the sector's needs: "You establish an organisation with committees and sub-committees, then a new technology comes up and you don't have the right people working on them."

Standards organisations agree that something needs to be done if they are to remain relevant to large sections of the electronics industry. "The penny has dropped over the last year," says David Lazenby, director of standards at the British Standards Institution. "The IT and electronics industries were getting more and more restive." Tony Raeburn, general secretary of the Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission, which develops and publishes electrical and electronics standards, says: "When you have products that last two to three years from launch to replacement, then clearly our conventional standards process is far too slow."
Most standard-setting organisations offer processes which require lower levels of consensus and transparency than is required for a fully- fledged standard. The
IEC, says Mr Raeburn, had been considering adapting these for the electronics sector, but decided it was pointless. "Big companies such as Sony, Alcatel and Rockwell said we needed something different. Rather than waiting for a full international consensus that may never be achieved, they wanted a specification they and their customers could use."

At the end of last year, the IEC launched its Industry Technical Agreements, a high-speed process aimed at delivering industry specifications in months. Similar products have been launched by organisations including the International Standards Organisation (Iso), which is the IEC's sister organisation, Cen, the European standards-making body, and the BSI.
These organisations lend their facilities and expertise to help industry hammer out the specifications. In the case of ITAs, industry players agree among themselves who is to take part, but the results carry an intrinsic "seal of approval" from the
IEC, which will retain publishing rights and share revenues with the participants.
Last month, the
IEC announced that its first ITA was under way. The process is being used by the Open Platform Initiative for Multimedia Access (Opima), a consortium of more than 40 companies and organisations which was started by Mr Chiariglione.
This aims to have defined by next September specifications that would allow a consumer to access a range of multimedia services - such as TVs, decoders, radios and personal computers - from one terminal. Mr Chiariglione says multiple terminals with different interfaces are expensive and confusing, and are slowing down the adoption of digital services. He hopes products will be available in 2000.

Mr Raeburn stresses that even in electronics, the IEC's full standardisation process is still needed in areas such as power generation and transmission equipment. In consumer electronics, he hopes ITAs will help prevent marketplace battles over formats and give consumers confidence that changes in specifications will not render their purchases unusable.
The new process has other advantages, he says. "Multinationals such as Philips and Sony have their own networks for talking to each other, but this gives an opportunity for smaller companies to get involved."
The new ITA process, Mr Raeburn admits, is cutting corners. "All the feedback we get is that the full international consensus standard is not required, because things are happening so quickly." In any case, he adds, an ITA could be turned into a full standard later if required.
But if industry is happy, what about other interests? Couldn't these fast-track processes produce an industry stitch-up that leaves consumer organisations and governments under-represented.
"There is always going to be a trade-off between openness and transparency on the one hand, and time," says Mr Lazenby. "For industrial purposes, a fast-track approach is fine, but I don't think it is appropriate when there is a public or society issue involved." And the
IEC points out that part of its role will be to ensure the new fast-track agreements do not circumvent the full standards process if that is more appropriate.