This paper was published as the feature article in StandardsView, March 1996.

Technical Standards: Foundations of the Future

by Ken Krechmer
Communications Standards Review

757 Greer Road
Palo Alto, CA USA 94303-3024
+1 650 856-8836
[email protected]

Without the cubit, the pyramids could not have been built. Technical standards are the foundation of each technological advance. Each succeeding innovation is linked by reference to prior technical standards. And each successful innovation enhances the flow of progress. Most innovations cause only the smallest addition to the flow of progress, but a few are the beginnings of more profound change, perhaps the beginnings of a new wave[1] of change. Technical standards are a means to chart these rising waves of change. In this paper three classes of technical standards are identified, and the past waves of change they influenced are described. A fourth class of technical standards is postulated and some of its effects are predicted.

Waves of Change

An early indication of a standard is the beginning of written alphabets by the Egyptians and Babylonians around 4000 BC[2]. Thus the beginnings of a standard mark the start of recorded Western history. The development of a standard Western alphabet continued for about 3000 years until the Greeks completed the task with the addition of vowels (and the writing of the Homeric tales[3]).

Alphabets were so desirable that many other incompatible alphabets were also developed in other cultures. The creation of multiple alphabets appears to be caused by minimum communications between different cultures and the desire of each culture to control its own alphabet. So each culture developed its own standard alphabet, many of which remain to this day.

During the period that the alphabet developed, different unit standards for length and volume also developed, setting the stage for the next wave of change, the trading wave. Trading, the major activity of merchants, is enhanced by the acceptance of public standards[4] for unit measure. Initially, different cultures created different unit standards. Over time, trading, a form of communications, reduced the number of different systems of weight and measures significantly.

The waves of human progress, technology and standards are related and overlapping. The same as humans and technology, standards follow an evolutionary path. Multiple standards are created and over time winnowed down to the most desirable and culturally acceptable standards that codify the technical requirements developed during the preceding wave. Future waves build upon the previous technical work, by reference to the standards. Standards developed during one wave thus become the foundation upon which the technologies for the next wave are built.

Even the information wave, first described in 1980, has already evolved sufficiently to suggest further gradation into linear and adaptive phases. Table 1 describes the periods most relevant to the creation of new classes of technical standards. It is not meant to describe all the waves of progress that have occurred.

Waves of Change Trading Wave Industrial Information Wave Linear Wave Adaptive
New Technology Definition of Logistics Computers Adaptive weights and (assembly (linear processes measures line) processes)
New Trade routes Mechanized Electronic Wireless Communications transport
Class of Units Similarity Compatibility Etiquette Standard (metrology) and methodology
Table 1. The relationship of standards, communications and technology to the on-going waves of society.

A New Phase of the Information Wave

The adaptive information phase of the information wave began with the completion of the US Government funded Internet during 1982/1983[5]. As soon as a new technology powerful enough to create a new wave is identified, the powerful see the technology as a means to maintain or increase their power. So each wave begins with those who would control the technology and ends with the technology dispersed to all who would use it. Now that the personal computer provides linear information processing to millions and IBM no longer dominates information processing, the ending phase of the linear information wave has arrived. The very dispersion of personal computers thus becomes part of the change that underlies the early part of the adaptive information wave.

During the linear information wave, large organizations' information systems were private. Limited information transfer took place between two or more private systems. Much like a tribal society, each linear information system had its mores and customs that could not be challenged by the system users. Such a lack of adaptability limited system users to rote functions; unique customer problems could not be addressed rapidly. In such a constrained environment, businesses were likely to suffer from their more versatile competitors. Currently, concepts such as client/server computing and re-engineering are being introduced to support and provide more adaptive information processes.

Today's First World societies are awash in linear information: TV, cable, periodicals, radio, movies, mail, newspapers and books. Most of these media were created for entertainment and all are difficult to use for information. They are rapidly obsolete (i.e., not efficient to maintain), difficult to use (i.e., not machine searchable) or undesirable (i.e., junk mail). The Internet is an example of a communications system capable of supporting adaptive applications. Internet applications provide information storage, search mechanisms, common presentation formats and potentially more in the future. Fundamentally, Internet applications are adaptive to the user: accepting of input, searchable, automatically updated, continuously expanding, selectable and changeable.

The adaptive information wave is beginning with adaptive applications such as agents[6]. It will be implemented with adaptive processes for the layers of communications as well as the applications, since without open adaptive communications the applications themselves are constrained.

As the Internet indicates, providing fully adaptive applications requires near real-time communications. Batch processing is definitely not adaptive. Given the bi-directional operation of adaptive communications processes and the change from central information processing to a peer-to-peer or client/server environment, it appears that a bi-directional (near duplex) communications environment is necessary as well. These requirements for near real-time duplex communications to support the adaptive information wave may impact plans to provide public asymmetrical communications via cable or wireline (ADSL[7]) services.

Splitting the information wave into a linear and an adaptive phase allows for a view of the importance of adaptive information and its considerable difference from linear information. It also points out that adaptive processes require open communications[8] systems.

Open Communications

Until the 1980's, almost all of the implementation of wide area public networks[9] has been done by regulated public utilities. While regulated public utilities are public, in practice, current design, regulations and the associated bureaucracy severely limit the adaptability of such networks. The privatization of international telephone public utilities (British Telecom in 1984, DBT Telekom [Germany] starting in 1989) is an indication of the societal trend toward opening the public networks. Opening the public networks is often considered allowing competition. Opening the public networks also requires standard interfaces that support open communications.

Open communications, as used in this paper, denotes "freely available to connect to". It also connotes a flexibility or independence of connection. To achieve such flexibility the interfaces need to be adaptable. Adaptability is necessary because any large communications system mutates over time. Mutation of communications systems is most often based on new application requirements but also occurs by error and because of developing requirements to be compatible with other systems. An example of such mutations is the change evidenced after the Carterphone decision[10] in 1969. Prior to 1969 only a few different telephones from the Bell System could attach to the network. Now the US public telephone network connects to an amazing array of telephones, PBXs, computers, fax machines, answering machines, cellular phones and cordless phones. Another example is the Internet which allows flexibility of function above the OSI transport layer. The World Wide Web, and an expanding, but compatible, range of Web applications are the result.

Adaptive communications processes are OSI layer processes that may change operation based on the information or control signals returned. The difference between adaptive processes and linear processes is feedback. Feedback is too powerful a concept to treat simply as an aspect of processing. In a communications system the use of feedback between remote ends to initialize a process is termed negotiation. The ability of a user/system to access usenet or ftp or www on the Internet is a form of negotiation. The ability of two remote fax machines to select data rate and page format is another form of negotiation. Successively more complex negotiation (i.e., feedback) becomes necessary in a rapidly changing open public communications system.

Fundamentally, public communications standards are necessary for openness[11]. However it is often difficult to achieve a single communications standard. When a communications standard becomes ubiquitous such as the telephone RJ-11 jack, it offers flexibility of use because it is ubiquitous. When a communications standard is being developed, standards only limit the designers' flexibility. So different systems designers, for reasons Darwin would appreciate, create different implementations of the same process. Over time and with guidance from market forces, standards committees try to coale sce these multiple versions into one standard, with varying success.

Adaptability - able to change without difficulty - can also help minimize the problems causes by the creation of multiple incompatible implementations. With adaptability and negotiation a communications system can operate according to one implementation and then change, in response to a request, and operate according to a different implementation. The ability of a V.34 data modem to also work as a V.32bis data modem is adaptability. The ability of a proprietary modem (such as Telebit multicarrier) to also work as a V.32 modem is adaptability. Adaptability maintains the flexibility necessary for open communications.

The transition from linear processes to adaptive processes in communications systems requires successively more complex negotiation. Adaptive processes at each layer of the OSI model support more possible variability. The most dramatic case is when the physical layer is wireless. Then the range of adaption possible is not constrained by any physical interface. In wireless systems, a new technology termed software radios[12] will make possible wireless communications systems that can access multiple wireless frequency bands and modulations. This technology, and the associated negotiation, will go far to overcome the log jam of technologies being proposed for wireless Personal Communications Services.

In the linear information wave, the telephone system was run as a single public utility and did not provide open communications; the telephones connected to the ends of the network were certainly not adaptive in any way. IBM computers, with IBM software, connected by IBM specified protocols to IBM terminals also did not offer open communications and only offered limited adaptability at the central host location. Now the widespread deployment of personal (i.e., changeable by user) computers, high level programming languages and the beginnings of adaptive applications (e.g., HotJava[13]) support the adaptive information wave.

The adaptive information wave is carried on the rising tide of open adaptive processes in communications, often wireless, with other open adaptive processes. The passage of information between non-adaptive or non-independent processes is linear information transfer. The linear information wave based on such information transfer was a significant step forward, but it is now being overtaken by the succeeding phase, the adaptive information wave.

The Classes of Technical Standards

Until the information wave, there has not been a need to delineate technical standards into multiple classes. Before the beginning of the information wave, all technical standards basically defined similarity of entity or process. During the information wave technical standards designed specifically for compatibility emerged. Now the requirements of new waves of society seem to be expanding sufficiently[14] to suggest the need to define new grouping of standards.

As Table 1 indicated, the term "standards" has been used for a range of different technical requirements. The initial standards for weights and measures in Western civilization, such as the Egyptian cubit for length or the Greek amphora for volume were necessary to support trading. Later the industrial wave expanded the requirements for similarity standards such as wheel sizes, grades of ore, methodology of building or testing. During the industrial wave early physical compatibility standards also emerged for train rail spacing, common fire hose flange to fire plug or nut to bolt fit. While written as similarity standards, i.e., no separate interface standard was created, these standards were the beginnings of later compatibility standards.

The linear information wave required virtual similarity standards for character sets, protocols such as HDLC, operating systems, applications and data bases. During the later stages of the linear information wave, more complex public communications systems using modems, facsimile and ISDN dramatically expanded the complexity and need for compatibility standards. Now in the adaptive information wave, many kinds of wireless services, public and private, are creating the need for additional compatibility standards. This expansion in communications compatibility standards causes the need to implement etiquette standards.

Table 1 proposed four classes of standards. Table 2 delineates these classes. Note that each class of standards is related to the previous, and may reference the previous, but defines a range of variation that was not previously delineated separately.

Classes of Examples Purpose Effect Standards
1. Units Meter length, ounce (metrology) Sameness Replication
2. Similarity AS[15] metal gauges, methodology Repeatability Compatible stds, character sets, X.3 PAD with like
3. Compati- Group 3 facsimile, V.32 & V.34 Interworking Transmitter bility modems, X.25 interface, NIUF ISDN compatible implementation agreements, wireless with receiver air interfaces
4. Etiquette Aloha protocol, CSMA/CD, modem Expandability Negotiate handshakes, WINForum spectrum the variation etiquette
Table 2. The four classes of standards.

1. Unit standards define measurable physical qualities, e.g., meter, mile, liter, gallon, gram, pound, etc. This allows different physical entities to be compared to a physical reference.

2. Similarity standards define (possibly with the use of unit standards) the allowed variation within a set of similar entities, e.g., thread gauge, DOS operating system, paint color. In similarity standards, the primary reference is a definition of the entity to which similarity is maintained. Units standards, if employed, are a secondary reference.

3. Compatibility standards define the interface between two or more mating elements that are compatible rather than similar, e.g., a plug and a socket, a transmitter and a receiver. The primary reference is to a definition of the allowed mating entity. Modem standards (V.32, V.34) are examples of compatibility standards: they define most aspects of the transmitter and a few aspects of the receiver to ensure compatibility. Compatibility standards define the allowed difference between the plug and the socket, the transmitter and the receiver, the protocol generator and the protocol receiver. The OSI model (X.200) defines the mating layers necessary to pass information between computers (adaptive or linear). OSI layer protocols may be defined by similarity standards, but each protocol likely has options. The effect of such options has been to create the need for compatibility standards, termed interfaces, templates, or implementation agreements, which define the allowed range of options necessary for compatibility. X.25 is an example of an OSI based compatibility standard between a DTE and a DCE (X.3 Packet Assembler Disassembler similarity standard) connected to a packet data network.

Some of the difficulties experienced in deploying ISDN came to pass as the initial standards which defined ISDN were similarity standards rather than compatibility standards. Later, when the National ISDN User Forum (NIUF) developed compatibility standards (implementation agreements), usage began to expand. A counter example is the rapid acceptance of Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) cellular telephone standards in North America. AMPS standards included compatibility standards (air interfaces) with the initial standards work.

4. Etiquette standards define the initial negotiation between independent communicating processes for the purpose of establishing communications[16]. The primary reference is to a definition of the variability of negotiation allowed. Such a definition may be open ended to support future compatibility. An etiquette does not terminate an OSI layer, it only negotiates aspects of a layer's function. This usually means that the function that performs the etiquette must be associated with the process that terminates the related OSI layer (otherwise problems may occur). Etiquettes are being used to support physical node change (Ethernet CSMA/CD), backward compatibility (V.32, V.22bis, V.22 handshaking) and wireless access (WINForum spectrum etiquette). In these cases, the value of the etiquette is its ability to negotiate variable aspects of the physical layer process.


Initially, standards defined physical things. Then they evolved in support of the industrial wave to define the physical relationship between things. Later, standards used for information transfer in the information wave defined the virtual relationship between things (a radio transmitter and a radio receiver) . More recently, the opening of public wide-area communications systems has engendered the need for interworking between an ever expanding range of communications networks and equipment. This creates the need for etiquette standards.

From cubit to CSMA/CD, the creation of standards makes possible new waves of change. The next wave is emerging: the adaptive information wave. It is being carried forward by open adaptive processes and will operate over near real time wireless communications. The linear processing wave created a tribal information society. The adaptive information wave will be more like the ferment of a modern society. Considerable freedom will be possible and considerable responsibility will be necessary. In such environments, future innovations and the progress they create will flourish even more.

Ken Krechmer
Communications Standards Revew
757 Greer Road
Palo Alto, California 94303-3024 USA

VOICE: +1 650 856-8836
e-mail: [email protected]


[1] Developed as a concept by A. Toffler in The Third Wave, 1980. He described three waves: agrarian, industrial and information.
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[2] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945
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[3] Rostovzeff, History of the Ancient World Vol. 1, 1926
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[4] Public standards are those that are accepted across multiple jurisdictions.
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[5] Period of transition from NCP (Network Control Protocol) to TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) is used to indicate the completion of the Internet.
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[6] Active distributed network applications such as created by General Magic's Telescript
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[7] Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line supporting up to 6.144 Mbit/s to the user and up to 640 kbit/s to the network.
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[8] Open communications is a broader term than open systems from Open Systems Interconnect (X.200/ISO 7498)
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[9] Formally termed Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) prior to 1984 and General Switched Telephone Network (GSTN) after 1984.
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[10] The FCC in 1969 found that the Carterfone electrical connection to the telephone network (for wireless phone calls) did not adversely affect the telephone system. This decision became the basis of direct connect, FCC Part 68, connection to the public telephone network.
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[11] "A Five Segment Model for Standardization", Carl Cargill published inStandards Policy for Information Infrastructure, 1995
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[12] A concept described in IEEE Communications Magazine May 1995
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[13] Internet application developed by Sun Microsystems
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[14] Recommendations for the Global Information Highway: A Matter of Standards, Ken Krechmer 1995
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[16] A good example of a human communications etiquette is hello. It was Thomas Edison who suggested to Alexander Graham Bell that the term "hallo" used to hail a ferryman be used by the answering party to indicate that they had answered the telephone. It also indicates the language spoken.
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