What is a standard ?
There are standards everywhere. Most of the time we don't even notice them. We may hear talking about a "standard bed",
a "standard size photograph" or "standard time", but that's about it.
Standards may also be expressed in terms of language: something becomes recognizable and real when both the sender and the receiver know what they are talking about, that is, when they are using the same parameters or standards. "Cold" may be "colder" or "warmer" depending on the origin of the person referring to the temperature. In the same manner, "big" is "bigger" or "smaller" depending on who's looking at an object... So then, what is the metric system if not a worldwide standard?
The European Standards Bodies (CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) define a Standard as a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context. Standards should be based on consolidated results of science, technology and experience, and aimed at the promotion of optimum community benefits.
Standards in everyday life
The definition given above may be rather technical and confusing. To put it in other words, we will use two very simple examples that explain the concept of standard in everyday life: a credit card and a sheet of paper.
We certainly can agree with the fact that any given bank can issue its credit card following its very own specifications. A bank could issue a credit card that is round, thinner and with two additional chips. But would consumers, the very clients of this bank, like to exchange their old-fashioned, rusty credit cards for these new, trendy ones? Probably not… unless a real compatibility with the "standard card" is guaranteed. This is because behind the old credit cards there is a lot more facts than just the card itself, and consumers count on everything that goes with it (worldwide acceptance that means mobility and independence, money machines adapted only for "standard" cards, wallets even are made too in this pattern). This "standard size" has gone even further and now is widely accepted and recognized as a reference size for other documents like business cards. Thus, it is easy to understand that if a new trendy card is not compatible with the worldwide standard card, its success would automatically be very limited, or rather, it would be a complete failure.
This example describes quite well the more unknown and difficult world of electrotechnical standards. Standardizing these products, processes and services is a quite time-consuming task that can nevertheless offer great benefits to European trade and consumers. Having one common standard that guarantees access to over 34 different European countries means a product can reach a much wider market at a cheaper development and testing cost. Standard products gain automatic acceptance by their target users as they can identify and consequently accept these products - standards mean recognition.
However, and just like the credit card, no one is obliged to follow the standards, provided that the products are safe and serve their purpose . Manufacturers who do not apply them may risk a difficult and slow acceptance by consumers. But if we look at it otherwise, this non-obligation opens the door to research and development in the given field. If all manufacturers were forced to always follow the same process in order to comply, this might hamper the development of more advanced equipment. If a new type of credit card proves to be better and more secure, then consumers would certainly accept it, and it could gradually become the next "standard card" to which all other services would quickly adapt. This can only happen if the market is flexible and standards are not compulsory (provided that the product is safe).
Another example would be the A4 paper size. Not many people know the real dimensions of an A4 sheet of paper. But it is also true that A4 has become the reference for printers, folders, envelopes, publications, software, etc. No one is forced to follow it but A4 has certainly become the rule, the reference, the recognized non-written law.
These two very simple examples clearly show that standards make life easier to both consumers and manufacturers while - while at the same time- they do not constrain market development. A manufacturer with a great new idea may go further with it. If the market and consumers accept it, others will certainly follow the idea, thus giving the opportunity for standards to be developed in that specific field.