WASHINGTON--Mar. 28--U.S. high-tech companies, determined to occupy the driver's seat on the information superhighway, are pushing for international technical standards to make their technology usable around the globe.
Aware of their technological edge, they also want to make sure that they are not saddled with mandatory norms or with standards calculated by foreign governments to shelter domestic industries from international competition. ``Government intervention and control...would likely alienate a significant sector of industry, fail to elicit an optimal involvement from the other participants, and run the risk of becoming the biggest obstacle to creative advancement,'' said Sergio Mazza, president of the world's largest standardization body, the American National Standards Institute.
Uniform technical rules are the key ingredient of the global information infrastructure, allowing different systems, products and services to work with one another.
Under pressure from the Clinton administration, the world's seven leading economies recently agreed to incorporate ``industry-led, voluntary, market- driven standards'' as a basic element of the information superhighway.
The New York-based ANSI was quick to recognize the need for global standards, setting up a special panel to identify areas in which uniform rules were needed.
``Every company has to participate or you let your competitor design your product and define your markets,'' cautioned Lawrence L. Wills, director of standards at IBM and ANSI chairman.
That's exactly what happened to U.S. companies, especially in the high- tech sectors, when the International Standards Organization adopted a Europe- driven quality standard known as ISO 9000. ``Industry was asleep at the switch'' when it happened, admitted Mr. Wills.
As a result, he said, IBM has paid over $100 million to comply with standards that his company believes have been rendered obsolete by U.S. practices, such as total quality management, and that ``added nothing to our product.''
As Mr. Wills explained it, ISO 9000 ``centers on repeatability, not quality, and it doesn't take the user into consideration at all.'' Under that standard, ``You can build junk, but you have to be capable of building junk consistently,'' he said.
Rising too late to the challenge, U.S. companies found compliance with ISO 9000, which requires companies to undergo pricey audits, ``has become the cost of doing business in Europe,'' said Mr. Wills.
He spoke to the Journal of Commerce at ANSI's annual meeting held here last week under the banner ``Gaining a competitive edge in global markets.''
The information infrastructure standards panel, chaired by Oliver Smoot, of ITI, so far has identified more than a dozen standards that will have to be adapted to make the components of the infrastructure mesh. He said most of the standards relate to ``interoperability'' of systems, with others aimed at assuring the security of transmission.
Mr. Smoot said ANSI's panel, which includes European and Japanese representatives as observers, is likely to identify a number of other global standards before it dissolves, possibly within a year.
Experts agree U.S. information companies, ranging from computer manufacturers to telephone and cable operators to television networks and satellite operators, hold a substantial technological edge over their nearest competitors from Europe and Japan.
``We're way ahead of everyone on this,'' said one ANSI official, who asked to remain anonymous. ``The European and Japanese are running really scared.''
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