We saw the opposite problem with the more mature U.S. nuclear industry in the 1970s. Almost every plant was a custom design, and almost every plant was over budget. By comparison, the more successful French nuclear industry adopted a small number of standard designs, and their plants cost about the same as an equivalent fossil fuel plant.
A standard doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. And if it’s not good enough, it will be replaced. You may have heard that Betamax videotape was superior to VHS but still lost in the marketplace. Not quite. Beta might have had better specs, but tests showed that this wasn’t apparent to viewers. More importantly, VHS beat Beta on recording time.
What about the Dvorak keyboard? Wasn’t it superior to QWERTY? Dvorak has a more logical layout, but this advantage is small. More importantly, QWERTY was firmly entrenched when Dvorak came along, and Dvorak didn’t offer a big enough improvement to outweigh the hassle of the change.
Beta and Dvorak were better in the lab, but VHS and QWERTY had the advantage in the real world.
On the Plus Side
One final truth illustrates a recent positive change in our dealing with standards: Computers help minimize the problems of multiple standards. By the mid-1980s, owners of Betamax VCRs began to realize they had backed the wrong horse — an expensive mistake.
Today, however, PCs can handle various image and video formats, juggle different audio formats, and even adapt to NTSC or PAL DVDs. Keyboards can be switched on the fly between QWERTY layout and Dvorak. Computers in cell phones can switch between bands as necessary, and computers in next-generation DVD players may bypass the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format problem simply by supporting both.
It’s been said the nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from. And we will likely be dealing with ever more standards as long as society continues to innovate.
Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) and holds 13 software patents.