There are two sorts of standards in the world
January 31, 2011
There are two sorts of standards in the world; let us call them forced standards and voluntary standards.
With a forced standard, someone makes you adhere to the standard. If you don't, you can't get your product licensed or certified or whatever, and you can't sell it or give it away or do whatever you want to do with it. Sometimes this is forced because of legislation, and sometimes this is just forced through the marketplace; no one will buy your product if it is not certified as whatever or if it doesn't work with other people's products.
(Note that it is perfectly possible for a de facto standard to be a forced standard because of interoperability requirements.)
With a voluntary standard, there is nothing in particular that makes you adhere to the standard. People adhere to the standard anyways because it's useful, because they're nice and like it, because it's good PR, or for a number of other reasons. They may also adhere to the standard only in part, picking the bits of it that they like or that they need or that are easy enough to implement.
Forced standards are the only sort of standards where you can write something that people have to implement (well, more or less; ask any home renovator about how many things adhere to building codes). This makes forced standards a very attractive idea to the sort of person who wants standards to lead from the front (to put it one way).
Mistaking what sort of standard you're dealing with or creating is a great way to get into a lot of trouble one way or another. On the surface it sounds relatively harmless to mistake a voluntary standard for a forced standard, but in practice it leads to a lot of aggravation all around and people can expend a great deal of effort in arguing about the situation (or, often, yelling at each other). At the extreme it leads to the creation of unwanted 'standards' that are a complete waste of time and effort.
(As with lots of things about standards, there is a continuum in practice. This is especially so if the forcing is happening because of market demands instead of legislation, since market demands change over time.)
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