Standards and Communication

Every successful form of communication, from the earliest use of smoke signals to Web pages on the Internet, has the same thing in common:

A sender
A signal
A receiver

For communication to take place, the sender and the receiver must understand the meaning of the signal. Here's an example of a FAILURE of communication.

We use standards to make sure both the sender and the receiver understand the meaning of the signal. Here are some standards we use every day:

English - We all agree that the words "You're a goof" have a completely different meaning than "You're a champ!"

Video Tapes - You can't play those Super 8 tapes in your VCR; you can't play a tape from your cousin in Ireland either; it uses a different video standard. The communication of the signal from the creator (sender) of the tape to the player (receiver) of the tape only works when both are using the same standard.

Video Games - You can't play a Sony PlayStation game on your Nintendo 64.

Radio - You can listen to AM or FM programs broadcast (sent) by a radio station if your radio has an AM and FM receiver.

TV - You can view TV shows on cable that are broadcast (sent) by the cable company if you have a cable box (receiver) or a cable-ready TV (receiver built-in); if you only have an ordinary TV, you can only get regular broadcasts because that's the only receiver you have. No receiver; no communication.

Internet Standards

There are thousands of people in the computer industry involved in setting standards.

These are some important Internet standards:

TCP/IP - Packet and transmission standard of the Internet

ASCII - Standard for encoding numbers and letters

HTTP, HTML, URL - Web standards

PNG, GIF, JPEG - Standards for image files

POP, SMTP - Email standards

V.34, DSL, T1, T3 - Communication standards

Java - Programming language

QuickTime, RealPlayer - Audio and video standards

FTP - File transfer standard

PDF - Document transfer standard

We create meaning by agreeing upon standards for our signals.


Sometimes standards are created by governments or large corporations. Often, especially in the Internet, they are created by individuals. The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (http), Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), and the URL (web address, e.g., were all defined by one individual, Tim Berners-Lee. Creation of these standards effectively gave birth to the World Wide Web that we know today. Tim went on to found the World Wide Web Consortium, a group with the mission to realize the full potential of the Web.


 "I decided to form the World Wide Web Consortium in September 1994, with a base at MIT in the USA, INRIA in France, and now also at Keio University in Japan. The Consortium is a neutral open forum where companies and organizations to whom the future of the Web is important come to discuss and to agree on new common computer protocols."

- Tim Berners-Lee

Once someone creates a standard that catches on, it typically evolves through use and through formalization by a standards committee. Key standards organizations include the Internet Society ( and the World Wide Web Consortium ( In fact, the technical evolution of the Internet can be traced by looking at the Internet Society's Request For Comments documents (, the vehicle by which people propose, debate, and agree upon the standards and procedures that make the Internet work.

Open Standards and Language

We included the English language in our list of standards earlier. Languages and standards are very similar; they are the means by which people and computers communicate: people via language and computers via standards. Just like society needs a common language to communicate and grow, computers need a common language also. In that way both the signal senders and the signal receivers will always speak the same language. And just like no one should "own" English, no one should "own" standards, the language of computing.

  • An open standard is a published standard that is possessed by no one and used by all. HTML is an open standard; it is managed by the World Wide Web Consortium and they see to its dissemination and evolution. But they do not own it. No one does. Anyone can inspect, criticize, or suggest enhancements to an open standard and any changes must be made by consensus.
  • A proprietary standard, on the other hand, is typically owned by a corporation. Its internals cannot be inspected. Its use is licensed by its owners. It can be changed at will.

Open Standards and Growth

Can you play your Sony video game on your Nintendo or Sega video game machine? No. Do you know why? Because there are no open standards that define the game's images and logic. Each video game corporation uses its own proprietary standards. As a result, each corporation controls and effectively limits what games get produced for each of its game platforms. For these video game platforms, there are no open standards.

Over and over again, open standards have proven to be the power that fuels phenomenal growth. Europeans use cellular phones twice as much as Americans. In Finland, wireless phones already outnumber wired ones. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that Europeans agreed to use a single, open, digital cellular standard. Equipment manufacturers therefore only have to build to one set of specifications and everyone's phones work equally well anywhere in Europe. As a result, business is booming and new services, such as messaging and two-way data transfer, are rolling out much faster and much more comprehensively in Europe than they are in the U.S.

Open standards can grow an entire industry, leaving more room and more opportunity for everyone. And they improve products, because rivals can compete only through pricing and quality. Most importantly, open standards provide the clarity and stability necessary to create new forms of communication and exchange. They provide an elegant, transparent way for people to interact in a cooperative fashion.

The Power of Cooperation

The Web is a product of the thoughtful cooperation of individuals all over the world. When we think of people cooperating, the image that often comes to mind is that of a group of people all working together as a unit to attain a specific goal. The Web is a marvel of cooperation, but ironically it utilizes cooperation so that each one of us can attain our own goals. Agreements to cooperate between people on the Web are constructed so that each person and organization can do its own thing. As Tim Berners-Lee says in his book Weaving the Web, "As long as we accept the rules of sending packets around, we can send packets containing anything to anyone."

The Future

Interested in creating a standard? You could! The Web is still in its infancy. New standards are being created all the time. For example, a new standard called the Wireless Application Protocol will enable people to surf web sites from their cell phones. To create a standard, you would need to create a way to communicate that hasn't been done or done well, figure out a standard way to create the signal and receive the signal, distribute the standard, and see if it flies. Of course you need to be technically knowledgeable and figure out something that hasn't been done before, but that is basically how it would work. If it's not standards-driven, it's not on the Internet.

Intro | Comm | Pub | Five Easy | Web Ed | Found | Squeezing | Standards | Animate | Epilogue


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