When is a ‘Standard’ Really a ‘Standard’?

All the recent talk about Thread Group, Z-Wave, ZigBee, HDBaseT and other smart-home protocols has Derek Flickinger dying to set us straight on the subject of “standards.”


Thread Group is just one home automation initiative that’s made the news recently. Yesterday’s announcement that the group now numbers 50 members begged that age-old question: When is a “standard” really a “standard”?

One guy who often gets irked by standards talk, especially of the misleading variety, is Derek Flickinger, proprietor of the integration firm Interactive Homes Inc. and a long-time participant in home technology standards initiatives.

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He also is a longtime CE Pro basher (but a friend) who takes us to task whenever we use the terms “standards” and “protocols” interchangeably.

Responding to a recent article about Z-Wave, Flickinger took issue with my calling the technology a standard.

Here, Flickinger schools us on the intricacies of the “standards” nomenclature and explains why Z-Wave is not a “standard” and why that matters.

On a personal note, I confess that I’ve been wrong for more than a decade thinking that “standard de jure” (of the law) was actually “standard du jour”, i.e., what is convenient for the day. Boy I sure got that one wrong. – JJ

Derek Flickinger on Standards

I think it is misleading to your readers to use the two “intents” of the word “standard” interchangeably. So, when is a “standard” a “real” standard? Let us start at the beginning.

There are what I consider four generalized categories of “standards,” as they relate to our industry (not legal standards like HIPAA, OSHA, etc.).

De jure
De jure standards are standards “according to law.” That means they were created and ratified by formally sanctioned industry-wide organizations (usually with formal bylaws) using well-documented consensus and approval processes.

These are the ones I consider “real” standards. They are the work of “official” organizations like the IEEE, CEA, TIA, SMPTE, etc., and are not owned by a single company.

These standards are tested and certified to be interoperable between multiple vendors offering multiple solutions based upon those standards. These “standards” usually are more difficult to maintain interoperability because each vendor has the freedom to “enhance” their functionality even though the core of their products interoperate at the “standard” level.

Open standards usually are developed by groups of people trying to solve a particular problem and then the results are “given away” to the public. This usually applies to software and may be overseen by an organization that sanctions particular “forks” of the base code. The community, as a whole, decides what to include or not.

De facto
De facto standards are standards “in fact” or in actuality. These are the “proprietary” standards owned by single company. Their acceptance is because they have a dominant presence or it could be more of a marketing ploy to solve specific problems with patented technologies, possibly licensed from that company.

There are two types of de facto standards: completely closed or published and usable via an appropriate license or by anybody. This company usually is the only one to supply the chipsets or the development software for their platform.

A perfect example of a proprietary open “standard” is the AT command set from Hayes for modems. These technologies are interoperable between themselves because a single vendor provides the core of all solutions based on those technologies.

International standards usually are applicable worldwide and are overseen by non-profit organizations. These include those from the IEEE, EIA/TIA, ITU-T, etc.

Is Z-Wave a Standard?

So, back to the issue. How many vendors supply and are responsible for Z-wave? One – Sigma Designs (formerly Zensys).

It may be one of the de facto standards, but the technologies are not developed and approved by an industry-sanctioned organization nor are they based on open de jure standards.

They may deliver a full suite of characteristics and functionality, but their implementation is limited to what Sigma Designs wants to let you do with it or the tools they want to supply for developing to it.

Additionally, they sell only to OEMs, ODMs and other major clients only.

How many companies supply ZigBee-related chipsets? ZigBee chips are available from Ember, Freescale, Microchip Technology, and Texas Instruments. Complete, ready-to-use ZigBee modules also are available from multiple sources like Atmel, CEL, Digi, Jennic, Lemos, and RFM.

While HDBaseT is turning into a de facto “standard,” it falls into the same category. It is proprietary and is not sanctioned by any de jure standards organization. [Ed. note: HDBaseT has been working towards recognition by a standards body.]

AVB [Audio Video Bridging], on the other hand, is a suite of de jure standards and sanctioned by influential and globally recognized groups like the IEEE.

From an integrator’s viewpoint, the difference between the two runs much deeper.

How do you deliver solutions today that provide a strategy and platform that will be valid five years from now? Do you take a chance on a single company and their potential success or do you embrace an industry that allows you to take advantage of the flexibility provided by an assortment of vendors providing a multitude of products based upon industry-developed and approved standards?

I spend a lot of time following and sometimes participating in several sanctioned standards groups. Therefore, I prefer the latter.

Editor’s note:
 I most likely will continue to use “standards”—with or without quotations—to mean any number of standards types, if only to hear from Derek more often.

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson


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