Standards: The Bedrock of the Small Form Factor Community


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A common thread that runs through virtually all the significant embedded technologies of the past 20 years is their emergence from an independent industry standards organization. Technologies such as PCI, SATA, USB, PCI Express, PC/104, VME, CompactPCI, ATCA, COM Express and many more originated from organizations dedicated to the definition, proliferation and longevity of industry standards. And these organizations continue to be the lifeblood of our industry, as new standards or upgrades to existing standards, such as USB 3.0, PCI Express Gen 2 and others take hold over the next few years.

Standards organizations can embrace several roles. Some view themselves as primarily technical in nature, providing a neutral environment for companies throughout the industry to meet, discuss and document their ideas for a future that all industry players can share in. Other standards organizations see themselves with a marketing role, finding it necessary to promote their standards to increase their adoption throughout the industry. Both types of roles exist widely in our industry and the debate often rages within an organization as to which role it should play.

But whatever their role, standards organizations have two fundamental needs that must be met by the industry at large for continued healthy existence. The first is financial support, usually in the form of annual dues and sometimes supplemented by nominal fees for copies of standards documents. Most standards organizations are set up under federal non-profit guidelines and have very low overhead compared to for-profit corporations. These standards organizations can exist on a very small income, but they are totally dependent on the contributions of members to continue. Paying members tend to have “skin in the game,” and are recognized and appreciated by users for backing multi-sourced standards. All members of our community should contribute by joining one or more standards organizations working in areas that they consider important.

The second fundamental need is the involvement and active participation of the member companies in the definition of new standards and the timely evolution of existing standards to reflect new underlying technologies. Virtually all the work at these standards organizations is done by volunteers from the member companies who set aside competitive differences and understand how their work transcends themselves to benefit the entire industry. While large industry players often can lend senior engineering staff to help define and document standards, the participation of lead engineers from even the smallest players, on a part-time basis of a few hours per week, can be critical to providing a broad review of new standards before they hit the streets to ensure their viability for suppliers and users alike. Every member of the small form factor community should be participating in the definition and evolution of one or more industry standards through the popular standards organizations.

That said, every once in a while a “standards organization” (and we use the term loosely), emerges that does not contribute to the overall growth and health of our industry. Many of our existing standards began life as proprietary developments of a single company that were contributed, without strings, to a true standards body for finalization and proliferation. Among these are PC/104 (contributed by Ampro), PCI Express (Intel’s 3GIO) and COM Express (Kontron’s ETXexpress).

Unfortunately, some companies see the emergence of a standard as a profit opportunity. A proprietary technology is protected through some sort of intellectual property lock, such as patent or copyright protection. A bogus standards body is set up specifically to shepherd the new “standard” to the industry. Companies who want to join or adopt the new standard are required to recognize the intellectual property rights of the originator by “licensing” the new technology and paying some form of license fees. Although this approach exists with consumer electronics, such as HDMI or Macrovision, there is no room in the small form factor embedded market for this type of self-serving, deceptive practice. We call on all members of the small form factor community to reject such tomfoolery. At the same time, we also call on all members of the community to support one or more of your relevant standards organizations, both financially through your membership and with your active participation in their technical committees or working groups. Involvement and sweat equity, not logo clubs, lead to long-lived pervasive standards. In our highly fragmented industry with many, many small companies, these organizations represent the best way that all of us can work together to make the market we serve larger and to continue growing as fast as possible.