feature article
Subscribe Now

Getting Creative with Standards

How Much Does Standardization Straitjacket Your Work?

“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” — Anonymous

I saw a click-bait headline the other day that suggested that engineering standards were reducing developers’ creativity. It didn’t have its desired effect – I didn’t click through to the article – but it did make me stop and think. Do standards limit creativity?

Yes, and that’s a good thing. Frankly, I don’t want network developers getting creative with packet protocols; TCP/IP works just fine, thank you. I’m glad that QWERTY keyboards all have the same key spacing (on full-size keyboards, anyway). Heck, I’m even glad for the awkward QWERTY layout itself; no Dvorak for me, please. Cars all have the same GUI (steering wheel, pedals, etc.), as do airplanes, boats, and skateboards. Back when I had a real job, I was thankful for the regular 0.10-inch spacing on DIP pins. Standardizing on the power/ground pins in the corners was nice, too.

In short, there’s a lot of room left for creativity even in a standards-based world – a lot of room. Painters don’t seem constrained by the limitations of watercolor or canvas. Photographers seem to make do with silver halide and/or RGB pixels. Musicians (Western ones, anyway) tolerate the well-tempered scale. It’s amazing to think that Johannes Brahms and Jimi Hexdrix both used the same musical scale, though to slightly different effect.

Consider the Library of Congress. Everything there was written using the same 26 letters.

Standards allow us to stop thinking about problems that have already been solved and start thinking about new problems. We all build upon the previous work of others, standards-makers included. Before 1820, machine threads on bolts, screws and nuts weren’t standardized, which meant that you had to buy your hardware from the same guy who built the machine. Got a Brand X threshing machine? Better be sure to get Brand X nuts and bolts to repair it, or they won’t fit.

It was Cadillac that first demonstrated an automobile with standardized and interchangeable parts. To much astonishment and acclaim, company representatives disassembled a few perfectly good cars, randomly swapped the parts around, and reassembled them. And it worked! Amazing.

Quick: What does black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, gray, white make you think of? No bonus points for adding gold and silver. To an electrical engineer, that’s a standard resistor color code, while to non-hardware types, it’s just a collection of colors. (“What? No mauve?”) It’s all a matter of what you know, how you see things, and what you’re trying to accomplish. Changing that particular standard isn’t likely to make anyone’s system work better. Unless you’re deliberately trying to obfuscate your component choices, that is. Or frustrate future repair attempts.

Which leads us to whiskey. I recently received the gift of a bag of rocks. As in, stones. Square ones. They were granite, I think, but I’m not an expert in mineralogy, geology, or uh, rocky things.

Unwrapping the package, I couldn’t help but think of Charlie Brown at Halloween – “I got a rock” – but that reaction didn’t seem quite appropriate here. Sensing my confusion, the gift-giver clarified. “They’re whiskey stones. You freeze them and then put them in your drink. They chill it without diluting it like ice would.” Ahhh, now I get it.

With a few words, a bag of rocks was transformed into a useful and practical tool. The rocks hadn’t changed, of course; only my perception of them. I could see the rocks; I could examine them, weigh them, test them for hardness and so on, but I’d never really “get” what they were for without an explanation. It’s all in the perception.

The lesson in this is the value of marketing. Include in that advertising and good documentation. All words that make you and/or your customer change their view of what they’ve got and what you’ve made. Is it an oversized PC with big fans and a free operating system? No, it’s a Linux server that will host your company’s web presence! Is it an LCD screen with some flash memory taped to the back? No, it’s the latest $800 smartphone!

You’ve developed the world’s slowest and buggiest interpreted programming language? No, we’ve unleashed a best-in-class platform-independent platform for platform development. You see? It’s all in how the customer perceives the product.

Here’s another example. Imagine a device that is hollow, about the size of a water bottle, and includes a CMOS camera, a piezoelectric pressure transducer, a real-time clock, a wireless interface, and (of course) a companion app for iOS or Android. What is it?

Of course! It’s the RemoPill, a smart pill box that uses its internal weight sensor, camera, and RTC to make sure users take their medications on schedule. All thanks to standards. And to some much-needed explanatory material. You’re welcome. Go out there and innovate. 

One thought on “Getting Creative with Standards”

  1. Good standards create markets and provide capital that drives innovation: BLE, USB and RS232 as an example.

    This year CES featured large number of innovative products based on Bluetooth Smart standard.

    For me, standards are my work and innovation is my job!

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Dec 3, 2021
Hard to believe it's already December and 11/12ths of a year's worth of CFD is behind us. And with the holidays looming, it's uncertain how many more editions of This Week in CFD are... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community sit...
Dec 3, 2021
Explore automotive cybersecurity standards, news, and best practices through blog posts from our experts on connected vehicles, automotive SoCs, and more. The post How Do You Stay Ahead of Hackers and Build State-of-the-Art Automotive Cybersecurity? appeared first on From Si...
Dec 3, 2021
Believe it or not, I ran into John (he told me I could call him that) at a small café just a couple of evenings ago as I pen these words....
Nov 8, 2021
Intel® FPGA Technology Day (IFTD) is a free four-day event that will be hosted virtually across the globe in North America, China, Japan, EMEA, and Asia Pacific from December 6-9, 2021. The theme of IFTD 2021 is 'Accelerating a Smart and Connected World.' This virtual event ...

featured video

Imagination Uses Cadence Digital Full Flow for GPU Development

Sponsored by Cadence Design Systems

Learn how Imagination Technologies uses the latest Cadence digital design and simulation solutions to deliver leading-edge GPU technology for automotive, mobile, and data center products.

Click here to learn more about Cadence’s digital design and signoff solutions

featured paper

Simplify building automation designs with MSP430

Sponsored by Texas Instruments

Find out how optimized building automation requires simple, flexible designs. With integrated, high-performance signal chain, MSP430 MCUs can enable high-accuracy motion detection, sensing and motor control to take performance and efficiency to the next level.

Click to read more

featured chalk talk

High-Performance Test to 70 GHz

Sponsored by Samtec

Today’s high-speed serial interfaces with PAM4 present serious challenges when it comes to test. Eval boards can end up huge, and signal integrity of the test point system is always a concern. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Matthew Burns of Samtec about the Bullseye test point system, which can maintain signal integrity up to 70 GHz with a compact test point footprint.

Click here for more information about Samtec’s Bulls Eye® Test System