Electronic Design

How "Special Interests" Become Industry Standards

Special interest groups (SIGs) are industry groups created by companies to address a problem or opportunity that requires multivendor cooperation. SIGs have membership agreements and bylaws that describe the rules of the SIG and define how a specification's intellectual property is licensed. Typically, specification development in a SIG is done privately under a nondisclosure agreement. This allows members to develop specifications with shared proprietary information without exposing it to the public. This privacy also enables members to shape specifications and incorporate this advanced knowledge into their product plans before it reaches the general public.

Standards development organizations (SDOs), like the IEEE and ITU, have rules of operation defined by an international organization such as the International Standards Organization (ISO). SIGs don't produce formal standards. Instead they develop voluntary specifications, generally called implementation agreements or industry specifications. Once completed and published, these specifications are adopted by the industry.

The Network Processing Forum is a great example of a SIG. The NPF's mission is to accelerate the deployment of network processing technologies by establishing common and open network processing interfaces and benchmarks. The NPF has a well defined process for developing new specifications, gaining consensus, voting, and publishing its implementation agreements.

Because members usually compete, a SIG's dynamics can be complex. Each participating company must determine how to maximize its own ROI by participating in the standards process. This involves guiding the process as much as possible to maintain individual competitive advantage. This process is part skill and part art. Companies that try to bulldoze the specification process by forcing their own agenda won't succeed. Strategic compromise is very important. Successful companies influence the specification development process without exposing their proprietary product information.

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