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ISO Standards, the beauty and the beast

February 14th, 2011 No comments

Standards is one area where a monopoly can provide a worthwhile benefit. After all the primary purpose of a standard for something is having just the one document for everybody to follow (having multiple standards because they are so useful is not a good idea). However, a common problem with monopolies is that charge a very inflated price for their product.

Many years ago the International Standard Organization settled on a pricing scheme for ISO Standards based on document page count. Most standards are very short and have a very small customer base, so there is commercial logic to having a high cost per page (especially since most are bought by large companies who need a copy if they do business in the corresponding application domain). Programming language standards do not fit this pattern, often being very long and potentially having a very large customer base.

With over 18,500 standards in their catalogue ISO might be forgiven for overlooking the dozen or so language standards, or perhaps they figured there is as much profit in charging a few hundred pounds on a few sales as charging less on more sales.

How does the move to electronic distribution effect prices? For a monopoly electronic distribution is an opportunity to make more profit, not to reduce prices. The recently published revision of the Fortran Standard is available for 338 Swiss francs (around £232) from ISO and £356 from BSI (at $351 the price from ANSI in the US is similar to ISO’s). Many years ago, at the dawn of the Internet, members of the US C Standard committee were able to convince ANSI to sell electronic copies at a reasonable rate ($30) and this practice has continued ever since (and now includes C++).

The market for the C and C++ Standards is sufficiently large that a commercial publisher (Wiley) was willing to take the risk of publishing them in book form (after some prodding and leg work by the likes of Francis Glassborow). It will be interesting to see if a publisher is willing to take a chance on a print run of the revised C Standard due out in a few years (I think the answer for the revised C++ Standard is more obvious).

Don’t Standards bodies care about computer languages? Unfortunately we are thorn in their side and they would be happy to be rid of us (but their charter’s do not allow them to do this). Our standards take much longer to produce than other standards, they are large and sales are almost non-existent (at ISO/BSI prices). What is more many of those involved in creating these standards actively subvert ISO/BSI sales by making draft documents, that are very close to the final copyrighted versions, freely available over the Internet.

In a sense ISO programming language standards exist because the organizational structure requires them to accept our work proposals and what we do does not have a large enough impact within the standards world for them to try and be rid of those tiresome people whose work is so far removed from what everybody else does.