927: Standards

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Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we've all standardized on mini-USB. Or is it micro-USB? Shit.
Title text: Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we've all standardized on mini-USB. Or is it micro-USB? Shit.


For any engineering task, there are numerous ways a given problem can be solved. The more complex the task, the more room for diversity. That's all well and good for a one-off problem, but if a design is meant to be iterated over time, or if an entire industry is solving that same problem, part reuse and interoperability become issues to deal with. Technical standards thus came to exist so that industries could avoid wasting resources reinventing the wheel, whilst offering their clients a certain amount of simplicity and compatibility between vendors.

But standards have issues of their own. They don't accommodate every use case, they might have restrictions or royalties attached, and people tend to be plagued by Not Invented Here syndrome. So competing standards have a tendency to arise to address different perceived needs. After a while, the market for competing standards gets messy and hard to follow, and integrating systems built around competing standards gets burdensome. As a result, someone eventually takes on the challenge of creating a universal standard that everyone can rally around.

This almost never works. In many cases, a new standard fails to displace the incumbent standards, eventually loses funding and support, and thus becomes a relic of history. In many other cases, it only penetrates far enough to survive, ironically making the situation messier. The latter situation often ends up becoming cyclical, with new standards periodically rising and failing to gain traction.

Three examples are given at the top of the comic: AC chargers, character encoding and instant messaging.

  • Power adapters are notorious for varying from device to device - partly to try to prevent dangerous voltage/current mismatches, but partly just because manufacturers all chose different adapter designs. In 2011, Mobile phone chargers had mostly converged on a common USB-based solution, but laptop charging remained still a long way out, despite the adoption of yet another standard, IEC 62700, and Apple mobile devices generally used proprietary Lightning connectors (However that is changing because of European law). Randall notes that there was additional complexity due to the fact that there were also competing USB types; thanks to the European Union's common external power supply specification, micro-USB then won the day. In August 2014, the USB Type-C specification was published and started to displace micro-USB; it gained ground among laptop manufacturers as well. From 2021 to 2022, the EU successfully legislated for its common use.
  • Character encoding is, in theory, a solved problem - Unicode is a standard for character sets which currently includes over 135,000 characters. However, Unicode is not an encoding, just an abstract representation of the characters, and there are several implementations which encode Unicode "code points" into usable characters (including the two most common, UTF-8 and UTF-16). Despite the success of UTF-8 Unicode, older encodings like Windows-1252 have stuck around, continuing to cause weird bugs in old software and websites to this day.
  • Unlike the other examples, there has been little or no effort by instant messaging companies to make their services interoperable. There's more value to keeping IM as a closed platform so users are forced to use the company's software to access it. Some software, like the Trillian chat client, can connect to multiple different services, but there is essentially no way to, for example, send a Twitter message directly to a Skype user. ActivityPub is an example of a standard intended to be universal, so any software using it for instant messaging can be 'federated' with each other, but as the comic points out, all this has lead to is yet another competing standard.

The title text mentions mini-USB and micro-USB, which were different standards used in 2011. As of 2019 for most applications of small USB ports (especially for charging / connecting cell phones), mini USB has lost most of its relevance and micro USB is competing with USB-C, as well as some solutions only used by single companies (such as Apple). As of 2023, Apple has also switched entirely to USB-C after pressures from the European Union.

Not all standards are created equal. In the development of standards, private standards adopt a non-consensus process in comparison to voluntary consensus standards. Private standards in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector and the agri-food industry (governed by the Global Food Safety Initiative) are discussed in a publication from International Organization for Standardization.


How Standards Proliferate
(See: A/C chargers, character encodings, instant messaging, etc.)
There are 14 competing standards.
Cueball: 14?! Ridiculous! We need to develop one universal standard that covers everyone's use cases.
Ponytail: Yeah!
Situation: There are 15 competing standards.
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But this new video codec might just be the one that solves all our problems! You never know until you try it! Davidy²²[talk] 09:19, 9 March 2013 (UTC)

There are sixteen competing standards StillNotOriginal 02:13, 22 May 2018 (UTC)

Is the mini-USB vs micro-USB standards rift a good representative example of what this comic is hinting at? Dexterous (talk) 10:19, 2 May 2014 (UTC)

Yeah, it is. Though, basically, there were even more variants than that around. Before each maker basically had their own socket, most kept it through their phone models, mostly. But everyone basically just uses Micro-USB nowadays... Some still use Mini-USB, but those numbers are dwindling. What really fits to this comic is something that was just recently announced: USB 3.1. If you Google for the new USB 3.1 plugs, you see they're completely different but "cover all use cases"... Let's see how that goes. Sinni800 (talk) 13:43, 25 July 2014 (UTC)
3.1 type-c was meant to be fairly quickly adopted and designed to meet all use-cases for the foreseeable future. when the foreseeable future presents currently unforseeable use-cases a new standard will likely be rapidly developed and deployed. this is a functional model, different than the one that leads to competition amoungst hardware/software developers. Also, MKV is another example of a sustainable standard (container for media files). Googles VP9, and the coming VPx 18 month update cycle, seem to be the best current option for an open video codec standard.

This particular comic is widely cited in about four different SDO's that I participate in 08:10, 12 November 2015 (UTC)


This is more applicable to politics. It's so prevalent in the left and I frequently reference it on /r/socialism and stuff. Once in a while there will be a person posting saying that we need to form one major socialist party that appeals to als many tendencies as possible like Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, with the parties like SAlt, SPUSA, etc. It's like. NO. YOU'LL JUST FURTHER SHATTER THE LEFT. Forget parties. We all have the common goal of class consciousness and worker ownership of the means of production. Let's first work on that and *later* argue about the specifics. Like seriously. For the organizing the left is known for, there seems to be less organizing and more arguing going on... International Space Station (talk) 02:10, 3 August 2016 (UTC)

Hah, with that kind of talk, it's no wonder your Popular Front for Galilee only has one member, bleedin' splitter! The goal of the People's Popular Liberation Front for East Judea (Bethlehem) is to free our country from the Judean People's Front (and the Romans after that) but there is no way allying with Samarian splitters like you is going to bring us closer to that goal! We will defeat the People's Popular Liberation Front for East Judea (Bethlehem) and free our country! Bloody SPLITTERS! Long live the People's Popular Liberation Front for East Judea (Bethlehem-North)!
Sorry, but after seeing that comment I couldn't resist :P -- 01:55, 8 March 2018 (UTC)
Truth. Marking this topic for anchor linking. -- Frankie (talk) 19:33, 5 February 2021 (UTC)

UTF-8 and UTF-16 can both encode the entire Unicode character set, so I edited the page to say this. (In actual fact, UTF-16 is more commonly thought of as the more limited version, by people who confuse it with UCS-2.) --Sophira (talk) 00:07, 11 December 2016 (UTC)

Mobile phone chargers have mostly converged on a common USB-based solution...[edit]

Regarding Mobile phone chargers have mostly converged on a common USB-based solution, it may be worth mentioning the reason they converged was China. China passed legislation standardizing the charging interface because competing designs proliferated and were not interoperating. It was causing excessive waste as millions of good chargers were discarded every year. Europe is cosidering similar legislation. Also see China’s Big Government Hand Works Just Fine and Apple will be forced to use micro USB chargers by 2017.

Except they didn't, because USB-C happened before micro-USB convergence actually occured in the West, and iPhones *still* aren't conforming to any sort of charger standard in 2019. And now we have 9 different standards running over a USB-C connector...
Relevant news on this aspect: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-51137069 17:19, 18 January 2020 (UTC)
(Was that me, that posted that? Possibly, it's written how I might have written it, from the same source that inspired me to bring the following here...)
Latest: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58665809
Also I'm noting in passing that I've got several devices still only MicroB-charging (one older thing is still mini-USB, I think, but only for data and not used for charging which is so much more easily accomplished by just swapping in new/recharged AA cells), the newest slightly over a year since bought first-hand, and not yet had a fabled USB-C one yet. Maybe I just don't pursue the bleeding edge, like most people (nor Apple stuff). ;) 17:05, 23 September 2021 (UTC)


What are the solutions to this "competing standards" problem? 17:06, 11 September 2022 (UTC) Ignis

Well, there's always the technodespot who prescribes the sole standard that is to be used... Even if it isn't one that is the best/sufficient/workable, but... people can always adjust. ;) 20:31, 11 September 2022 (UTC)
True! For example, this just happened: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33078596 (EU Passes Law to Switch iPhone to USB-C by End of 2024) 17:40, 4 October 2022 (UTC) Ignis