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Analog Angle Article

Let us now praise–and think about–famous standards

The impending switchover from the venerable and well-established analog TV standard to the digital one has me thinking about standards and their longevity. The standard we are replacing has lasted over 50 years, which is an impressive accomplishment by any metric. And to those who casually remark: “they could have it better or smarter,” I say: “you have no idea what you are talking about.”

The analog color TV standard was a brilliant and hard-won solution to many conflicting, and even apparently insurmountable, challenges: fixed, very limited bandwidth; signal-processing needs; vacuum-tube technology; available manufacturing infrastructure; human color and detail perception; and most intriguing, 100% backward- and forward-compatibility with existing monochrome signals and TV sets.

Standards come about in many ways. Some take hold quickly, some don't catch on all; some are developed by industry-wide groups; some come from a single vendor who is first with a winning product; some are brazen attempts to lock up a market; some evolve; some are nearly fully formed from their start. There is no single path to success for a standard, nor is there any assurance of how long it will last, and be supported by both vendors and consumers. We're an industry that generates standards at an increasingly fast rate; some days it seems as if that's the mission of certain groups.

Some standards are now so ingrained in our culture we don't even think of them as standards. A few which come to mind, in addition to the analog TV standard, are:

  • the Edison-base light bulb, over 100 years old
  • AC-line outlets and matching plugs
  • RS-232 interface
  • Basic telephone-line interface
  • 12-V (nominal) automobile supply
  • The sometimes maligned QWERTY keyboard layout, well over 100 years old
  • 60 seconds/minute; 60 minutes/hour; 24 hours/day
  • And of course, the seven-day week (despite attempts to change it, it has endured, see The Seven Day Circle by Eviatar Zerubavel, Macmillan, 1985)

Of course, the list could go on and on. Once you start thinking about it, you'll realize the extent to which society depends on implicit and explicit standards to function, develop new products within a well-defined framework, and keep things running.

It's easy to criticize a standard for its shortcomings, but often those criticisms are in hindsight, from the vantage point of newer technologies and experience. Let's be honest: a good standard that is widely available and supported is usually more useful than an apparently better one that is poorly supported. ♦

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