Europe Gets Serious about Standards

Consumers should not be obliged to change several chargers for their electronics devices. And a mass diffusion of electric cars will not happen without common standards for their recharge. Mobile phone or software companies are publicly showcasing their battle for the leadership of their respective standards.

In an era of increasing global competition, European competitiveness depends on the EU’s ability to foster innovation in products, services and processes and fully exploit the potential of the Internal market.  Standards are a decisive tool in international competition, a cornerstone of industrial policy and — sometimes — innovation.

We say “sometimes” because of the Great Operating System (OS) wars of the 1990s in Silicon Valley, where Unix, Apple’s Mac OS, and IBM’s OS2 battled it out. And those of us using the products would grumble constantly about a standardized platform (remember when your Windows Word doc wouldn’t open on a Mac?).

We were right to grumble. But you can’t say that innovation suffered for those lack of standards — in fact, arguably innovation flourished there.

Standards in manufacturing. But when you try to sell me a $30,000 electronic automobile and tell me I can’t use half the recharging stations on my route from here to Los Angeles because of lack of standards on the equipment, we may have a deal breaker.  Truly, in a B2C market, standards become more compelling.  (The race for market share for the Computer OS’s was largely fought in terms of corporate contracts.)

Or more accurately, in the B2C market, standards become more compelling more quickly.  One IT fix can solve a dual-platform problem for an entire company or 1000 employees, but 1000 individual consumers have no fix, and therefore, end up struggling to see the value.

In Europe, now, in a time of:

  • increasing global competition
  • an ageing European population/workforce
  • fiscal restraint.

European competitiveness may depend on their ability to foster innovation in products, services and processes and then to drive those innovations forward. A systematic approach to research, innovation and standardization adopted at European and national level would likely help best ideas to reach the market and achieve wider market audience quickly.

We call it globalization. And here are the steps the European Commission says it will take toward this end:

  1. The Commission will establish an annual Work Programme, which will identify priorities for European standardization
  2. The Commission will demand that European standards for innovative products and services will be quickly elaborated and adopted, for example in the field of eco-design, smart grids, energy efficiency of buildings, nanotechnologies, security and eMobility
  3. The Commission will make funding of the independent European standardization bodies (ESOs) conditional on certain performance criteria. In particular European standards should be adopted more quickly
  4. When European standards with a scientific component are to be incorporated into EU policy, impartial, sound and balanced scientific evidence will increasingly be taken into account
  5. ESOs, Member States and other standardization bodies are expected to improve awareness and education about standardization
Standards (metric or imperial?) in the EU

The European Commission proposes a series of legislative and non-legislative measures to develop more and faster standards. Standards are sets of voluntary technical and quality criteria for products, services and production processes. Nobody is obliged to use or apply them but they help businesses work together and to save money for consumers.

The European Council of 4 February, in its conclusions on the “Innovation Union”, invited the Commission “to make proposals to accelerate, simplify and modernize standardization procedures, notably to allow standards developed by industry to be turned into European standards”.

European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship said: “[S]tandards allow us all to have the best quality and sustainable products for a lower price. Standardization is also a key issue for the well functioning of our internal market.”

Here are important steps that the Commission took recently to strengthen the system of standard-setting in Europe and to implement related commitments:

  1. Europe will push for more international standards in those economic sectors where Europe is a global leader
  2. High-tech products are often sold in combination with maintenance services. Although there are many European standards for products, there are hardly any for services. Therefore, more market-driven European standards for services could be developed giving companies commercial advantages
  3. To propose a light and fast way to recognize the increasingly important ICT standards developed by global ICT standards development organizations, such as those underpinning the internet, to be used in public procurement, EU policies and legislation. This will stimulate innovation, cut administrative overheads and build a truly digital society by encouraging interoperability between devices, applications, data repositories, services and network
  4. The Commission will enhance its cooperation with the leading standardization organizations in Europe (i.e. CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) so that their standards will be available more rapidly. Businesses using these standards can make their products more compatible with other products so that consumers will have a broader choice at a lower price
  5. European standards will be drafted with the help of organizations representing those most affected, or most concerned – consumers, small businesses, environmental and social organizations
  6. The new standard for a universal mobile-phone charger to fit all models is a perfect example of the tremendous value of European standards for our daily lives
  7. Some of the proposed actions can be implemented immediately while the others require the approval of the European Parliament and the Council.

Good thing to keep an eye on.