October 12, 2012, 7:27 PM — For the lack of standards, a good portion of an entire city was lost.
Sunday, Oct. 14 is World Standards Day. Why should you care? When asked about the importance of standards, Mary Saunders, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Standards Coordination Office, pointed to how the city of Baltimore, Maryland, was almost entirely leveled by fire, due, in part, to the fact that no standards were in place to specify the size of fire hydrant valves.
In 1904, a fire swept through the city, taking out buildings across 140 acres and causing more than US$100 million in damage. To help extinguish the blaze, firefighters came in from other cities as far away as New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Their equipment was of limited use, however, because the country had not yet settled on a standard size for coupling hydrants to hoses.
While no one may be throwing a party this weekend in honor of standards, World Standards Day is a reminder to reflect on the importance standards play in the world, and in IT.
About 80 percent of global commerce, or $13 trillion in economic activity each year, has some connection with standards, according to Joe Bhatia, president and CEO of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
IT companies have traditionally been reluctant to embrace standards when building new products, instead hoping to command an entire market with a proprietary technology only they can provide. Such an approach can be short-sighted, argue standard advocates.
"Standards can help make a market that goes beyond an individual company," Saunders said. "They provide a platform in which they build vertical applications."
And a larger market means each individual company may reap more revenue, even if each company has a smaller share of the overall market.
Take the World Wide Web, for instance. In the early 1990s, computer networking started to take off as a commercial enterprise for consumers, served by companies such as Prodigy, CompuServe and Delphi. In its prime, America Online, the largest of these services, commanded a user base of 30 million.
AOL's walled-garden approach, however, couldn't keep pace with the innovation around the World Wide Web and the open standards anyone could use to publish or view a Web page. Today, the Web contains at least 8.4 billion pages and has approximately 3.4 billion users.