This will be a multi-part post, mixing in a little economics, a little history and a little technology — an intellectual smörgåsbord — attempting to make the argument that a single document format is the inevitable and desired outcome.
In Part I we’ll take a survey of a number of different problem domains, some that resulted in a single standard, some that resulted in multiple standards.
In Part II we’ll try to explain the forces that tend to unify or divide standards and hopefully make sense of what we saw in Part I.
In Part III we’ll look at the document formats in particular, how we got to the present point, and how and why historically there has always been but a single document format.
In Part IV, if needed, we’ll tie it all together and show why there should be, and will be, only a single open digital document format.
Let’s get started!
Standards — in some domains there is a single standard, while in other domains there are multiple standards. What is the logic of this? What domains encourage, or even demand a single standard? And where do multiple standards coexist without problems?
Let’s take a look at some familiar examples and see if we can figure out how this works. We’ll start with some examples where a single standard dominates.
The story of the standard rail gauge is probably familiar to you. At first each rail company laid down their own tracks to their own specifications. In the United States there were different gauges used in the North (5′ 9″) and the South (5′). This was not a major issue so long as rail travel remained local or regional. However, as the reach of commerce increased, the pain of dealing with the “break of gauge” between adjacent gauge systems increased. Passengers and goods needed to be offloaded and transferred to a different train, causing time delays and inefficient utilization of equipment. The decision was made to adopt a Standard Gauge of 5′ 9″ and an ambitious migration project took place on May 31st, 1886, when thousands of workers in the South adjusted the west track and moved it 3″ to the east, lining up with the Northern gauge. Eleven-thousand miles of tracks were converted in thirty-six hours.
It should be noted that this unification was not universally celebrated. In particular, riots occurred at some of the junction points, like Erie, Pennsylvania, where local workers stood to lose the high-paying jobs they had unloading and loading cargo onto new trains. Efficiency is often opposed by those who profited from inefficiency.
Another standard prompted by the railroad was the adoption of standard time. In earlier days each town and city had its own local time, roughly based on solar mean time. When it was noon in Chicago, it was 12:09 in Cincinnati, and 11:50 in St. Louis. The instant of local noon would be communicated to residents by a cannon shot or by dropping a ball from a tower, allowing all to synchronize their clocks. The ball drop could be observed by ships in the harbor by telescope and so was much more accurate than the cannon, since the signal was not delayed by the non-negligible travel time of sound. Some memory of this tradition continues to this day with the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square.
When it took days by coach to travel from Chicago to Cincinnati, it did not matter that your watch was 9-minutes slow. Your watch probably wasn’t accurate enough to tell the difference in any case. When noon came in Cincinnati you would synchronize your watch, knowing that some of the correction was caused by the change in longitude, and some was caused by the imperfections in the watch. But the average person did not care because they did not travel all that much.
However, with the coming of the railroad and then the telegraph, everything changed. People, goods and information could be transferred at far greater speeds. The difference of 9 minutes was now significant.
Initially, each rail company defined its own time, based on the local time of its main office. Timetables would be printed up based on this time. So a large train station, which may serve six different lines, would display six different clocks, all set to different times, some 12 minutes ahead, some 15 minutes behind, etc. At one point, trains in Wisconsin were operating on 38 different times! This was not only an inconvenience to travelers, it was also increasingly a safety concern, since the use of different time systems at the same station increased the chance of collisions.
This was addressed by the adoption of Standard Time in the United Stated on November 18th, 1883, the so-called “Day of Two Noons” . This was the day that the Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones took effect, and on this day every town adjusted its local time to the Standard Time of their new time zone. If you were in the eastern-half of your time zone, then when local noon came you would set your clocks back a specified number of minutes, and would thus observe noon twice. If you were on the western-half of your time zone, you would advance your clocks at local noon a specified number of minutes. The contemporary coverage of this event in The New York Times is worth a read.
Over the years, the every increasing rate of commerce and information flow has lead to greater and greater precision in time-keeping, so that today with atomic clocks and UTC we can now account for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and the insertion of occasional leap seconds.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a UN agency that maintains various aeronautical standards, such as airport codes, aircraft codes, etc. They are also responsible for making English the required language for air-to-ground communications. So when an Italian plane, with an Italian crew on an Italian domestic flight contacts the approach tower at an Italian airport, manned by Italian personnel, they will contact the tower in English. Why do you think this is so?
The diameter of beverage cans has but little variation. A can of Coca-Cola and a can of Pepsi will both fit in my car’s cup holder. They also fit fine in the cup holders in my beach chair or rider lawnmower. This works with beer cans as well, with innovative holders such as the novelty beer hat . Vending machines seem to take advantage of this standard as well, since it simplifies their design. The whole beverage can ecosystem works because of standards around beverage can sizes. How is this standard maintained? Was it planned this way?
It is interesting to note that, from the beverage company’s perspective this is non-optimal. A can has minimum surface area for a given volume when it has equal height and diameter. But we never see beverage cans of that shape. Why not?
In the United States, our television signals are encoded in the NTSC system. PAL is used in most of Western Europe and Asia, and SECAM is used in France and Eastern Europe. The United States is moving to a new standard, High Definition, HDTV, by February 17th, 2009. This is the law, as enacted by Congress, that we must move to a new television standard, causing expenses to broadcasters and consumers, as well as generating a lot of revenue for electronic manufacturers. Why did this require a law? If it was good for consumers and for manufacturers, wouldn’t the free market make this move on its own?
The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 quickly grew beyond the control of local fire companies. As the fire spread to encompass the entire central business district, the unprecedented call went out by telegraph for assistance from fire companies from Washington, DC and Annapolis and as far away as Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. But when these companies arrived, with their own equipment, they found that their hose couplings were incompatible. This was a large contributing factor to these fire’s duration and destructive power. Over 1,500 buildings were destroyed over 30 hours. Within a year there was a national standard for fire hoses.
To these can be added the hundreds of standardized items that we work with every day, such as standardized electrical connectors, light bulbs, food nutritional labels, gasoline nozzles, network addresses, batteries, staples, toilet paper holders, telephones networks, remote control infrared signals, envelopes, paper sizes and weights, currency, plumbing fixtures, light switch face plates, radio frequencies and modulations, screws, nails and other fasteners, etc.
Now let’s switch to some examples of domains where multiple standards have flourished.
The textbook example is the safety razor. When the safety razor was invented by Gillette, they were interchangeable, disposable blades made of carbon steel. As such they rusted and needed to be frequently replaced. Wilkinson Sword, later owner of the Schick brand, started making compatible stainless steel blades, which Gillette then copied. So there was a good amount of competition going on.
In the early 1970’s Gillette moved to embed the blades into disposable cartridges which, due to their patent protection, could not be copied by other manufacturers. This lead to our present situation of having multiple, incompatible razor systems. Competition remains fierce, with a battle to see who can put the most blades in a cartridge, from the Gillette Trac II with two blades and the Mach 3 with three blades, to Schick’s Quattro with 4 blades, to Gillette’s Fusion with 5 blades. Any guesses on what is next?
Video game consoles are in a similar position. In fact, they are often called a “razor and razor blade” business, since they sell the consoles at less than cost and later make their profit selling the game cartridges in proprietary formats. There is little interest, and seemingly little demand for a universal game cartridge standard.
Another example is the realm of SLR camera lens mounts. Each camera manufacturer has their own system of incompatible lens mounts. Is one clearly better than another? Have the multiple standards encouraged innovation in the area of lens mounts over the past 40 years? Good question. All I know is I have a bag full of Minolta lenses that I can’t use anymore since I moved to a Pentax camera.
We’ve all seen the many optical storage formats in recent years. Just in the realm of writable DVD disk standards, we’ve seen DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM, many of them in single and double-sided variations.
In the past 5 years we’ve seen perhaps a dozen or more varieties and variations of memory card formats, all of them proprietary and incompatible with each other. It makes the state of optical disk formats seem regular and peaceful in comparison.
To these can be added the hundreds of daily items that have managed to avoid a single standard, such as vacuum cleaner bags, coffee filters, laptop power supplies, cell phone chargers, high definition video disc formats, surround sound audio disc formats, etc.
That is all for Part I. Some questions to ask yourself:
- In the examples given of domains where there is a single standard, most of them did not start off that way. Most started with many competing approaches. What forces led them to a single standard?
- Who won and who lost in moving to a single standard? Who decided to make the move?
- In the cases where there are multiple, incompatible standards, is there a market demand for unified standards? Why or why not?
- If a government decree came down today and mandated a single standard in those areas, what would be gained? What would be lost?
I hope you will continue on with reading Part II.