The Standards Blog

Thomas Edison, Topsy and Hayden: The Tale of a Subcutaneous Standards War

Wireless

Standards wars have been around for a very long time, and with a real (if not an admirable) reason: if you can successfully set a de facto standard around your patented technology, you can make a lot of money. But when that happens, someone often loses -- big. Just ask Topsy or Hayden.

Standards wars have been around for a very long time, and with a real (if not an admirable) reason: if you can successfully set a de facto standard around your patented technology, you can make a lot of money. But when that happens, someone often loses -- big. Just ask Topsy or Hayden.

 

Thomas Edison tried to win a standards war and establish direct current instead of alternating current in America. So anxious was he to be the victor that he staged a public execution (using alternating current) of Topsy, an elephant with temper issues, at Luna Park, Coney Island, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince people that alternating current was inherently dangerous. Although alternating current was no more than dangerous than direct current, when used in sufficient magnitude it was quite lethal for Topsy (for more, and a rather startling image, see roadsideamerica.com).

 

There's actually a reason to bring up both standards wars and animals today. The battlefield du jour is RFID standards, which has already been a contentious area, what with China wanting to go it alone and epcglobal sweating through a difficult IPR policy battle. But now, it's the veterinary industry that has decided to have itself a good, old-fashioned standards war over subcutaneous RFID tags for house pets, as chronicled in yesterday's New York Times in an article titled Is There Anyone Out There Who Can Read My Tag? (registration is required to access the NYT site).

 

At issue is the frequency to be used, and the money that can be made by maintaining the database in which tag data is stored for reference by animal shelters and dog control officers.

 

It's a better read in the NYT, so suffice it to say that the donnybrook has all of the makings of a classic standards war story: protectionism, abandoned consumers that put money into the wrong standard, the U.S. vs. everyone else, patent litigation, and even a call for Congressional intervention.

 

Sadly, there’s even a sacrificial animal. This time, the hapless victim was Hayden, a pit bull unlikely enough to have a tag using a wrong standard other than the one used by the shelter that euthanized him just before his owner came looking for him.

 

It's enough to get under your skin.