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kolstad@prisma.UUCP (Rob Kolstad)
(original, smirk)


You know what I think? I think that people are not taking this standards thing very seriously.

Standards are important things, you know. Ignoring Gregorian chants, Ben Franklin was among the first to use standards. He recommended the use of interchangeable parts in rifles. This reduced their downtime, increased their performance, and considerably increased their repairability.

Imagine living in the olden times and breaking a part on your rifle:

He: Hey Rachel, the flintlock's broken. She: Bad news, Harry. Our gunsmith, Withers, passed away last year. You're going to have to get a whole new gun. He: You mean no one has a new flintlock? She: Nope, they're one-of-a-kind. Only Withers knew how ours worked.

Ben had many good ideas. Henry Ford carried them to perfection.

So where are we now? There are standards everywhere, you know. Every time you look at a screw, a nail, a brick, a board ... all are manufactured to standard sizes. (NB: Some standards are ``soft'', e.g., the 2.54 cm nail standard).

Computer manufacturers kind of have standards. Consider characters. I learned on a Bendix G-15. It had the extended character set option and could actually print letters instead of just numbers. This was a startling innovation (all the more startling due to its blazing speed - three characters/second!). The G-15 had 29-bit words and bizarre encoding for the characters. The coding scheme died a merciful death.

By the 60's, the ASCII code emerged. You know: the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. All American manufacturers were to adhere to it voluntarily. Every one of them. Except CDC, which was busy with 6- bit character codes, 10 per word. Except PLATO, CDC machines which had variable length characters (6 to 24 bits). Except UNIVAC; they used ``field data'', more six bit characters. Not too many special characters there, nosirree! Case distinctions? Who needs it! They also had the ``quarter- word'' format which stored four 9-bit characters. That was enough for upper/lower case and some exciting nonstandard graphics. Except DEC. Their DECsystem-10 had a scheme which encoded characters using a MOD-50 scheme. Innovative.

And: except IBM. They decided to use EBCDIC instead. Terrific. Instead of the ISO or any other standard, they had a new kind: the de facto standard. The phrase ``de facto'' means ``everyone does it this way so it doesn't matter what you think.'' IBM is real big on de facto standards.

Time passed; the world turned around once every day. Soon people found that the fewer ways there were to do a given thing (e.g., character codes) the more productive they could be. The world of computers has seen many standards emerge in recent years. Early on, tape formats standardized, thus enhancing interchange of data among various systems. Local area networks fueled the need for standards as each manufacturer found they needed to meet some level of compatibility or die. The personal computer world has almost achieved the world of plug-and-play for some kinds of peripherals and computers. What an amazing world we now live in.

So what's the complaint? I'll tell you the complaint: the very word ``standard'' is now bandied about as if it means ``latest way we invented to do something.'' When's the last time YOU said, ``Oh, I think I'll invent a new page-description language; we can make it a standard!'' Or maybe: ``Gosh, I don't think there's enough network file systems in the world; let's have a NEW STANDARD.'' AT&T tried that one. Oops.

Standards are hard. Either you have to let one guy (maybe two if they're friends) do it or you have to have a ``committee''. Committees can do it: it's been proven. Unfortunately, they take longer. The last FORTRAN standard took 10 years. The next one, currently dubbed FORTRAN 8x may not make it! It may turn out to be FORTRAN 9x. How disappointing.

At any rate, while companies like IBM can create de facto standards just because they sell some substantial fraction of every computer in the world, that doesn't mean just anyone can.

Let's all see how we can cooperate in the coming year and have just a few standards - a few good ones.

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