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IEC standardization underpins the IT and multimedia sectors

By Morand Fachot

The IT, audiovisual and multimedia industries are some of the world's most dynamic. They are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and provide employment to millions across the globe. This success is made possible by the work of dozens of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees), which develop International Standards for all components, systems and related issues of interest to these sectors

From niche products to mass adoption

Soon after radio broadcasting was introduced in the 1920s, the IEC created TC 12: Radiocommunications, to develop International Standards for Radio transmission and reception equipment. Radio remained a limited medium in most countries for many years due to its cost and was confined to homes until transistor radios were launched in the 1950s, giving users the opportunity to listen on the move and wherever there was no access to mains electricity.

Television, arguably the most popular entertainment medium today, was launched commercially initially in the 1950s in a limited number of countries. It is now available across the world and has replaced radio as the most popular broadcast medium nearly everywhere.

Likewise there was a relatively slow start for IT equipment. When it was first installed in businesses and offices it relied on large and expensive machines. It was gradually adopted by consumers from the late 1980s following the introduction of more affordable PCs (personal computers) and software that was more consumer-oriented.

The launch of the Internet contributed to the wider adoption of PCs in households, meeting an increased demand for entertainment, education and information, among other things.

As more convenient and cheaper computer and multimedia connected equipment such as notebooks, tablets and mobile phones have been developed, increasing numbers of consumers have adopted a whole range of different CE (consumer electronics) devices.

Constantly expanding market...

The convenience and "Wow factor" of connected computing and CE equipment have put a new complexion on media and entertainment consumption and have fed an ever wider adoption of equipment ranging from PCs and smartphones to tablets, video game consoles and even TV sets. This trend can be observed throughout the world.

In terms of revenues, Deloitte forecast that the global sales of these five categories of products would exceed USD 750 billion in 2014, and that, as markets matured, they would slow down, not fall, after a long period of very fast growth. However, new products such as smart glasses, watches and other wearables are now entering the market and the renewal/upgrade of existing equipment (for instance, the purchase of larger TV screens) will also contribute to future growth.

Volumes are also indicative of the size of the markets: some 1,17 billion smartphones were sold in 2014 while sales of PCs and tablets are forecast to top 263 and 349 million respectively in 2015.

...relying on IEC International Standards

All IT, audiovisual and multimedia equipment manufactured and exchanged throughout the world must meet International Standards for compatibility as well as for commercial reasons.
IEC TCs developing International Standards for such equipment include the following:

  • TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries
  • TC 40: Capacitors and resistors for electronic equipment
  • TC 47: Semiconductor devices
  • TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, and all its TA (Technical Areas)
  • TC 103: Transmitting equipment for radiocommunication
  • TC 108: Safety of electronic equipment within the field of audio/video, information technology and communication technology
  • TC 110: Electronic display devices
  • TC 119: Printed electronics

Other IEC TCs and Groups, such as TC 86/JWG 1: Optical functionality for electronic assemblies, work on Standards for tomorrow’s IT equipment (see article in Aug/Sep 2014 e-tech).

Another lesser known but central aspect of IEC activities in the IT and audiovisual and multimedia domains concerns CA (conformity assessment). This determines whether a product or other object corresponds to the requirements contained in a specification.

IECQ (IEC Quality Assessment System For Electronic Components), which covers the supply of electronic components and associated materials and assemblies (including modules) and processes, plays a key role in ensuring that the electronics industry gets access and that it uses the right components.

Not just about hardware

Attention on Standards for the IT, audiovisual and multimedia industries tends to focus on hardware aspects. However, it must also be stressed that these Standards also support a significant additional sector in the form of IT services and creative industries such as the production and distribution of multimedia content.

The IEC is very active in this domain too, developing International Standards, often together with various ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and ITU (International Telecommunication Union) SCs and Groups.

These Standards include, among others:

  • The development of digital audio and video compression codecs by MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group), a working group of experts formed by IEC and ISO. These codecs allow for better image and sound quality for the production and distribution of multimedia content. Latest codecs developed by MPEG include HE-AAC (High-Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding) defined by ISO/IEC 14496-3:2009, as well as AVC (Advanced Video Coding) and HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) developed by ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1/SC 29: Coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information.
  • The development of IEC 62698, Multimedia home server systems - Rights information interoperability for IPTV. This Standard developed by IEC TC 100/TA 8: Multimedia home server systems, developed in parts together with ITU-T/Study Group 16, aims to help improve consumers experience in using digital content while protecting content holders' rights
  • A lesser known but very significant advance concerning the IT software domain, is the development of ISO/IEC 26300:2006, Information technology - Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0, by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34: Document description and processing languages. ODF is a file format for spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word processing documents. It has been developed with the aim of providing an open, XML-based file format specification for office applications.

IEC role cannot be underestimated

The IEC plays a central role in allowing the IT, audiovisual and multimedia industries to thrive in terms of all aspects of the components, systems and processes, including software, that contribute to these sectors.

All in all, IEC TCs, SCs and ISO/IEC JTC 1 have published well in excess of 1 000 Standards that are used by these industries and have helped make them a global success.

Back panel of home theatre unit Back panel of home theatre unit (Photo Yamaha)
Printing Electronic Printing electronic components
Transmit module intel Fibre optics-based "Silicon Photonics" will replace copper connections in computers (Photo: Intel Corp.)