If anyone ever questions the value of standardization, they need look no further than the proliferation of internet-enabled “appliances”. Almost everywhere phones and televisions have become smart, computer screens serve as input devices by touch alone and networks deliver unlimited information.

While a kitchen gadget is created for a single use (for example, a pineapple slicer and dicer), ICT continues to converge such that every gadget can provide information to consumers worldwide, and in a format and language that matches their individual needs. This always-on, always-relevant reach for information is only possible with the interoperability that comes from ICT standardization.

Great minds, great ideas

Behind all this technology are the experts and gurus who jointly and individually share their visions and expertise to make gadgets work together seamlessly and move technology forward.

One such guru was Steve Jobs, the globally known co-founder, former CEO and former technological and business visionary at Apple, who passed away in October 2011. His recent tributes highlight just how impactful a vision can be on technological advances.

The underlying reality is that technical visions are behind every advance, no matter how small a piece of the interoperability puzzle, at every level of standardization.

Dennis Ritchie, “father of C”

Another notable guru was Dennis Ritchie, computer scientist and creator of the C programming language. Though other languages such as Assembly and FORTRAN were in use in the early 1970s, Dennis identified a need for an advanced programming language that would take advantage of the then current computer hardware, the minicomputer, being used in the telephone industry.

Basic combined programming language and a stripped-down B language were in place but were too complex and constraining. By developing as simple a language as possible, Dennis dreamed that an entire community would form and create great things through communication and collaboration.

Together with Ken Thompson, a colleague at Bell Labs, Dennis Ritchie went on to develop the UNIX operating system. His vision was to port operating systems to different machines and platforms. This was made possible by creating a “simple” operating system, only the core being essential for portability, while utilities could be chosen when required for specific operations.

This model empowered and trusted the software developer. In addition, for the ICT industry, these first steps in “ distributed processing ” were significant advances.

The first publication of C was in “The C Programming Language” book in 1978 (often referred to as K&R, after its authors, Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie). In 1983, the US information technology standardization committee X3, now the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), created X3J11 to establish a standard specification for C. In 1989, the ISO member for the USA, ANSI, published X3.159-1989 and, the following year, this effort was brought forward to the international level through joint technical committee ISO/IEC JTC 1, Information technology, subcommittee SC 22, Programming languages, their environments and system software interfaces, working group WG 14, C. The resulting standard, ISO/IEC 9899:1990 was then published. Last updated in 1999, the committee is currently preparing to review it once again.

Dennis participated in standardization efforts using the same philosophy he promoted in the C language: keep it simple and trust the software development community to do the right thing. He passed away in October 2011, exactly one week after Steve Jobs.

Alan Haberman and the bar code

Alan Haberman, previous Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31, Automatic identification and data capture techniques, was a visionary driven by the needs of end users. He began his standards work, as many do, in the private sector, struggling to find a common technical way forward.

Alan was President and Chief Executive of several supermarket chains. In the early 1970s his and other supermarkets saw the benefits of easily identifying and checking stock, and several electronic tracking systems were developed. However, there was no system commonality between manufacturers.

In 1973, Alan was selected to lead a group of retail executives in picking a standard symbol for encoding product data. They chose the bar code and first demonstrated this successfully in June 1974. The product was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which is now on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Significant work to advance the technology took place in the Uniform Code Council (UCC, now GS1). In 1996, when UCC sought to bring the work to ISO, SC 31 was created with Alan as Chair.

Alan saw the benefits of a global solution to retail supply chain issues and, understanding the technology’s benefits and potential, was a strong advocate for technology adoption. The radio frequency identification standardization work that began under his chairmanship is now being implemented in retail environments and in aerospace, healthcare and transport.

Beyond being able to scan one’s own groceries or hardware supplies, “gadgets” such as mobile phones can now display boarding pass codes at the airline gate or obtain additional information on a sale item in a store window.

During Alan’s remarkable career, he always understood business requirements, knew how to make a business case, addressed needs with a technical solution and rarely took no for an answer. Alan was Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31 until 2006. He passed away in June 2011.

Leaving a legacy

In ICT, gadgets abound and include personal music systems, roll-up wireless keyboards and language translation devices. Each relies on well-crafted International Standards to be successful and widely deployed.

Tech-business visionaries have had a huge impact. Many of these gurus have successfully translated their visions into technical statements, which later become standards. In the tough environment of ICT standardization, Dennis Ritchie, Alan Haberman and others have risen to the challenge, overcome obstacles and achieved much in the process.

Karen Higginbottom
Karen Higginbottom
Director, Standards Initiatives, Industry Standards Program Office
Hewlett-Packard

Karen Higginbottom has been active in standards and consortia activities since 1987. She is currently serving as Chair of joint technical committee ISO/IEC JTC 1, Information technology.