Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Making Sense of Standards (Part 1) – The Shuttle & the Horse’s Ass

There’s a popular anecdotal tale I’ve used over the years when talking at various conferences and industry group meetings about publishing standards. It goes something like this:

What’s the connection between the space shuttle and a horse’s ass?

  • Consider the large Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) tank that is strapped underneath the Space Shuttle. – Why is that diameter?
  • Because the only way to get it from the manufacturing facility to NASA was by rail. – So it had to fit through the smallest tunnel on the intended route.
  • What decides the width of the tunnel? – The width of the tracks.
  • Why are the tracks that wide? – Because they were based on the early English railroads.
  • What determined the width of the English railroads? – The first ones were built over existing cart tracks. Therefore the rails were the same width as a cart axle.
  • How come everyone had carts with the same axle width? Because they had to be wide enough to accommodate – a horse.

OK it may not be 100% technically or historically accurate (and you can find some of the arguments against it here), but as an illustrative parable it works well.

Standards and specifications can have a long term unforeseen impact not only on your business, but on those who may follow, or do business with you as either a supplier or customer.

When it comes to choosing which publishing standards you want to use, don’t just jump at what is the fashionable Standard-du-jour, but carefully consider what it may mean in the long term.

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