Standards And Profits

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There's a business side to technical standards. As contractors, standards affect our day-to-day operational costs. They affect our choice of suppliers (or they ought to). And, when two contractors compete for a customer, the contractor offering a standards-based solution has important advantages over another who offers a proprietary solution.

A quick history lesson will illustrate the operational costs side of standards. In the mid 1970s, when I worked for Altec (the original Altec), we taught our contractors how to match impedance and level and how to deal with balanced and unbalanced lines. These were critically important skills because, in most cases, you couldn't just connect a mixer to an equalizer to a power amplifier. First, you had to carefully match impedance and level and convert everything to balanced lines. Why was this all necessary? Believe it or not, it wasn't a technology issue. We were forced into this time-consuming, costly process primarily by a lack of standards.

Eventually, Altec and other manufacturers agreed on standards for impedance and level (and XLR polarity) and suddenly we could just connect things and they would work! The time and cost savings for contractors was enormous.
This illustration is only one way standards affect our costs. Consider what it costs the touch-screen control people to keep up with the RS-232 and IR control codes for all of the new products introduced each month. Video projector suppliers, in particular, seem to introduce new models and discontinue other models every month. Wouldn't it make sense to standardize the control codes for these products? It would help the touch-screen control people keep their costs down and it would greatly help contractors who often have to dig deep into service manuals or websites to find these codes.

From these examples, it's easy to see how standards can help contractors reduce their costs. And, lower costs help keep us more competitive. But, choosing products that conform to established standards offers additional value to our customers-value that can help us win sales. A proprietary system, no matter how attractive its features, no matter how great its performance, is likely to be obsolete in a few years, leaving the customer without support or the ability to expand. In contrast, a standards-based system can usually be repaired or expanded, even if the original supplier is out of business. Most customers will understand and appreciate this advantage.

Standards-based products benefit manufacturers, too. Most customers would prefer to buy products that conform to established standards. I believe this is a major reason for the success of ethernet-based audio networking products over those that use a proprietary networking protocol. Most engineers would probably agree that ethernet is less than ideal for real-time media transmission. But, if you can make it work, your customers gain because they can use their existing networks and IT expertise.

Given all of this, it's something of a mystery to me why the digital signage people haven't figured out how to create a standards-based digital signage system (at least I haven't seen one). It would be very easy. The system is just a miniature internet. You use an Apache-based web server to feed the content over an Ethernet network using IP addressing. At each display is a very low-cost, bare-bones Linux-based PC with a unique IP address. The PC runs a Mozilla browser that's set up to automatically download content from the Apache server every so often. Content creation is done in HTML, CSS, Java, and Flash-just like a website. There are a couple of tweaks needed to control the display and to enable "push" content from the server when needed for emergency announcements. You could probably do this with a few lines of Java. And, the basic system is completely standards-based.
How do you know which standards to embrace? First understand that the most important standards originate in the market and are later ratified by a standards body like the AES, IEEE, or ANSI. The Centronics parallel printer interface, the Wiegand card-reader interface, the XLR connector, Ethernet, and many other important standards in our industry came about in this manner. This means you look for standards in the market, not in the standards bodies.

Second, look for established standards, those that have been in wide use in the marketplace for a number of years and are stable and mature. It's good if these standards are being updated regularly like the 802.XX wireless networking standard. Updates keep the standard moving forward and prevent its early death (provided the updated standard is backwards-compatible).
Third, look for standards outside our industry as well as inside. Computer networking standards are critically important in contracting. And consumer audio and video standards are ahead of pro in the digital and high-definition domains.

So is there ever a place for a proprietary product or system in our business? Of course! Lots of important products started out this way. Peavey's MediaMatrix and the L-Acoustics V-DOSC line array are two important examples. Products like these may start out as proprietary but are followed by lots of copycat competitors resulting in a standard that benefits everyone.

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