International Standards

radio_47I just got back from Mobile World Congress, the biggest mobile wireless show in the world.

The hot topic is an emerging mobile phone technology called Long Term Evolution (LTE). The basic idea is that there will be only one 4th Generation (4G) mobile phone standard worldwide. What a concept…one mobile phone standard that you can use anywhere on earth. (Well, there is that small detail of different frequency bands being available in different regions. And there are really two variations of LTE hiding in the standard. But we can still tell each other this is a single standard.) Of course, there is that competing 4G standard called WiMAX.

Worldwide technical standards are a good thing.

The show was in Spain and I stopped in the U.K. on the way home. This reminded me of another worldwide standard that doesn’t exist: driving on the right side of the road. In this case, a country only has two choices: drive on the right side or drive on the left side. Most of Europe drives on the right side but the U.K. drives on the left. You would think that the world could have agreed on this but apparently not. Go figure. According to wikipedia, 66% of the world population live in right-hand drive countries, which means that is the right approach (weak pun sort of intended).

Another world non-standard is electrical power. Around the world there are various combinations of line voltage, ranging from 100 Volts to 240 volts RMS with a frequency of either 50 Hz or 60 Hz.  I am not sure how all of these different choices evolved but by now they are very entrenched. My engineering mind wishes that we were all on the same power line standard, so that we can all be more efficient: one power plug could be used all around the world.  The adoption of switching power regulators has helped this situation, since one power supply can handle all of the power line definitions around the world. Add in a small collection of plug adapters and the problem is solved.

One defacto standard that is common around the world is the QWERTY keyboard, which originated with the typewriter. Later it transferred over to computer keyboards and now it shows up on many of the so-called Smartphones (see BlackBerry). This is another example of a very entrenched standard….there is probably a more optimum keyboard layout but this is the one that everyone has been trained on. The Apple iPhone delivers an innovative touchscreen interface (that everyone else is trying to copy and one up) that is redefining the accepted smartphone user interface. Even the iPhone chose to implement the QWERTY keyboard in touch form as the way to enter text.

The one non-standard that has caused the most pain and suffering around the world is the lack of a common connector on wall-wart chargers. I blogged about this a while ago. It seems that every manufacturer does it differently and they are not even consistent within their own product lines. In response to some pressure from the European Union (and my blog, I am sure), a coalition of mobile phone manufacturers have announced they will implement a common charger format:

The GSMA and 17 leading mobile operators and manufacturers today announced that they are committed to implementing a cross-industry standard for a universal charger for new mobile phones. The aim of the initiative, led by the GSMA, is to ensure that the mobile industry adopts a common format for mobile phone charger connections and energy-efficient chargers resulting in an estimated 50 per cent reduction in standby energy consumption, the potential elimination of up to 51,000 tonnes of duplicate chargers1 and the enhancement of the customer experience by simplifying the charging of mobile phones.

The group has set an ambitious target that by 2012 a universal charging solution (UCS) will be widely available in the market worldwide and will use Micro-USB as the common universal charging interface. The group agreed that by the 1st January 2012, the majority of all new mobile phone models available will support a universal charging connector and the majority of chargers shipped will meet the high efficiency targets set out by the OMTP (Open Mobile Terminal Platform), the industry body who developed the technical requirements behind UCS.

The Micro-USB seems like an obvious choice. I wonder why it takes until 2012 to get this done? If they do get this accomplished, manufacturers of other electronic devices will follow. Heck, we might even see it on a 2 Meter handheld.

73, Bob K0NR

Update (19 Dec 2009): I came across this article from Mental Floss on the history of driving on the right/left side of the road.

  1. #1 by Bob Russotti on 25 February 2009 - 9:14 am

    We agree “Worldwide technical standards are a good thing.” ANSI coordinates standards development in the US and is the US member body to ISO, the International Standards Organization. I linked to your post on the ANSI Standards Group on Linkedin. I think our group would be interested in your article. Would you please consider joining the Linkedin group?

  2. #2 by Steve K9ZW on 25 February 2009 - 11:27 am

    Standards are sooo hard to keep in place.

    Even defacto Standards have major variants – our QWERTY is often QWERTZ in some countries, AZERTY in others and seemingly endless variants (look over the Keyboard possibilities of a Canadian Market Laptop – whew what a lot of various key combinations!)

    BTW the iPhone provides QWERTY as well as AZERTY and QWERTZ if version 2.1 or up. For a Dvorak layout (DSK) you have to jailbreak your iPhone and install the iKeyEx add-in.

    Voltages and Frequency history is interesting – our 60hz was Tesla’s personal choice (I don’t think he every explain why) and our 110v was a commercial decision to optimise Lamp Filiment life and to compete with non-Filiment based lighting. I’ve a client who only recently shut down a series of 25hz (like the old Canadian system) 100v equipment!



  3. #3 by K0NR on 25 February 2009 - 10:47 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, there are quite a few QWERTY variations…some for language differences but also quite a few unique layouts to “optimize” the secondary keys. I found this link with more information:

    73, Bob

  4. #4 by Pat N0HR on 26 February 2009 - 10:45 am

    I worked for Motorola during the dawn of the digital cellular age. International standards for digital cellular were a mess in the early 90s and are still being sorted. This was yet another area in which the Japanese market suffered in telecom – rather than go with the flow of an international standard they demanded that their own be used.

    Of course, there’s always the imperial/US/English vs Metric debate.

    However, I won’t judge another man’s standards until I’ve walked a km in his shoes.

    73, Pat

  5. #5 by Tony DiCenzo, KX1G on 28 February 2009 - 12:30 pm

    Was drawn to the topic because of my own involvement in international standards, but commenting because I am also a ham…KX1G. Bob, if it is ok with you, I’d like to mention your blog note in a LinkedIn group I moderate. It’s called the LinkedIn Group for Standards Professionals. The group has many members from the standards community. I encourage all to join. I think I will start a discussion there related to Hams who participate in standards activities. 73, Tony KX1G

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