There are numerous reasons to be nonstandard. For example when they built the world trade center in New York the thing was so huge that the vendor suggested they could have custom light bulbs that screwed in counter clockwise rather than the usual clockwise. This would keep the construction workers from stealing light bulbs. Nonstandard is often used this way, for example to make it hard to remove the screws from something you don’t want stolen. You can avoid having your customers stolen if you can get them to adopt nonstandard APIs. In these examples the nonstandard is being used because of a lack of trust. The builder of the twin tower’s doesn’t trust his labor. The platform vendor thinks his developers aren’t loyal, so he forces loyality.

One of my favorite standards stories is how after a fire in Boston in the late 17th century they legislated a standard brick size. It seems that the brick makers had all adopted differing sizes. They would compete to sell you your first bushel of bricks, but after you’d committed to a particular vendor’s brick size they would start raising prices. They were using nonstandard as a way to avoid getting forced into a commoditized market. The city fathers, acting as agents of the buyers, forced the sellers to adopt standards. Failure to conform resulted in a term in the stocks.

There is a varation of that story around lumber. The various lumber mills had no particular reason to standardize, nor did the lumber yards. The real pressure to standardize arose from the railroads; which wanted to commoditize the flow of lumber so they could ship more of it over long distances. The principle reason why a 2 by 4 isn’t 2 inches by 4 inches is because if it’s smaller then you can fit more of them into a railway car. That an entire industry can agree to standardize 2 as less than 2 is a fine example of how nonstandard is sometimes a way shape the supply chain to serve the needs of one particularly powerful player. In this case the railroad; a railroad car full of smaller two by fours is a lot more valuable than one full of the traditional ones.

You see a lot of seemingly gratuitous nonstandard behavior around batteries. Some of that is due to the pressures of the hardware design. Some of it is pure thoughtlessness by the designers. Some of it is, I suspect, carefully calculated – by creating a custom battery and assuring that your customers have to return to you to purchase a new one you can create a nice revenue stream. This is a particularly insidious form of pricing design. It’s a form of bait and switch; you shape the product’s presentation so everything the buyer sees first is cheap and reasonable but then you make up for that discounting by charging higher prices for the maintainance and service. Nonstandard components are key to making that work.

I tend to be on the look out for this kind of thing. They are fun to study because there is always this undercurrent of trust, loyality, and pricing games. Here’s one that came up recently. I just can’t stop giggling about it.

My son is about to go off to college. The school just sent us a mailing that informs us that the dorms have nonstandard beds. This is apparently fairly common They are longer than normal beds and we are advised to acquire special bedding. Not to worry a catalog is included in the mailing from a vendor they have partnered with to help resolve this problem.

I enjoy the fantasy that the univeristy is so desperate to find ways to break out of the highly standardized financial aid system that they found this clever trick for raising a bit more cash. It makes me wonder how much of a kick back the university is getting – none I suspect. I wonder if universities have figured out how to get a kick back from the text book publishers. Text books are so expensive because the market is so fragmented, the buyers completely locked-in; much worse than batteries. Where is the open text book movement?

10 thoughts on “Nonstandard

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  2. Ask Bjørn Hansen

    Just the other day I read that some high-school in Arizona were getting laptops for the whole school and, apparently, would skip all (or most?) of the text books in favor of researching things online. Making the textbook “the best we can find online”.

    – ask

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  5. Ben Hyde

    I’ve managed to convince myself that the entire reason for these non-standard beds is to reduce the theft of mattresses by students when they move off campus. I.e. it’s just like the light bulb example. Now I need to find somebody in the college dorm industry to validate my diagnosis.

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  9. Marc Donner

    Yah, the university today gets no benefit. But I’ll bet the guy who signed the original contract for the first load of nonstandard beds got a room added to his house real cheap.

    What’s sort of pathetic is not how corrupt the folks in authority are but rather how low they sell themselves.


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