Standardization and Coordination Externalities

A typical remote control for Cable TV in the first part of the 21st century has up and down arrows to adjust channels. Pushing the up (plus) button will move you away from channel 0, while the down button will move you toward channel 0 (although if you reach the final channel, you will return to home). But remote controls also have a navigation for the onscreen guide. this has an up, down, left, and right arrow. The up arrow moves you through the onscreen guide, but here up move you toward channel 0, while down moves you away from 0. The left and right arrows move you forward or backward through time.
These remote controls have a further set of controls to operate an auxiliary device like a DVD or an inbuilt device like a personal video recorder. The left arrow, following the convention from tape recorders, plays (forward in time), while the double left arrow (on the right-most side) is fast forward and the double right-pointing arrow (on the left side) moves you in reverse (rewind). Other buttons do other things.

Image of Telephone Keypad: 1, 2, 3 increasing from top to bottom, with 0 at bottom.

Image of Calculator Keypad: 0, 1, 2, 3 increasing from bottom to top.

Complaints about the complexity of modern remote controls are hardly unique (Nielson, J. (2004), ‘Remote Control Anarchy‘.) . Each remote is custom for a particular box, so as people accumulate boxes attached to TVs, the number of remotes increases accordingly. The utopia of the universal remote remains unreached; one hopes the situation will not sustain for another few decades before standardization moves in, or some other interface becomes widespread.


Like remote controls, keypads are another area where conventions may confuse.
Keypads on telephones and calculators represent the same ten digits, however they have different layouts. The telephone keypad, introduced with the advent of Touch Tone dialing by the Bell System in the 1960s places the number ‘0’ (or letter ‘O’ for operator, it is not always clear on telephones) at the bottom, and then numbers digits 1 – 9 in three rows of three columns each from the top. A calculator keypad (also used on computer keyboards) on the other hand, while it places 0 at the bottom, numbers 1 to 9 also in three rows of three columns, but in this case beginning at the bottom, as shown in the Figure. These conventions have carried over to computers, which could array numbers in any random way, but use the different conventions to represent the different devices. Newer devices, such as television remote controls, could use either, but typically follow the telephone layout (though some have original layouts themselves, e.g. going from 1 to 4 on the first row, 5 to 8 on the second row, and 9 and 0 on the third row).
For operating a television, rarely an urgent activity, the additional cognitive load of a poorly-designed or non-standard interface is annoying, but not dangerous. With the case of election ballots, such confusion and resulting error may change the outcomes (such as the odd butterfly ballot used in West Palm Beach, Florida in the 2000 Presidential election, resulting in a disproportionate (compared to other jurisdictions) number of votes for Pat Buchanan, and likely giving the state of Florida, and thus the United States electoral college and the presidency to George W. Bush).
American travelers trying to write emails in some European countries may note that the standard QWERTY keyboard found in the English speaking world (so-named for the keys on the top-row of letters) has been replaced by a keyboard, which mainly swaps the Y and Z, but has some minor changes, dubbed the QWERTZ kezboard. This is just enough to throw off touch-tzpists (er, typists). I am sure the confusion is two-way.
For driving cars in the United States, many functions have been fortunately standardized. The brake foot pedal is on the left, the accelerator on the right. The steering wheel itself usually performs as expected. Less critical functions remain confusing, especially when switching cars, or driving an unfamiliar vehicle, such as a rental car, the difficulty compounds as this is usually done in an unfamiliar place. Where is the windshield wiper? The light switch? The brights? The transmission control? The radio? The environmental controls? The locks? The window controls? The rear-view window control? The unlock for the trunk? The unlock for the gas tank? Where is the gas tank – driver or passenger side? All vary with make, model, and year of vehicle.
Driving on the left of the right is standardized locally, but not globally. As any traveler from continental Europe, North America, or South America knows, things differ on the islands of Great Britain, New Zealand, Japan, the Caribbean, and even the island-continent of Australia.
Traffic signals usually report red on top and green on bottom. What does it mean when the light is simultaneously red and green? Or red and yellow (amber), or green and yellow? Or the green light flashes? All of these patterns are local, but not global standards.
Standards are pervasive (imagine if each car required a different gas nozzle at a gas station (beyond the obvious differentiation for leaded and unleaded). But what in the world could be standardized and produce coordination externalities, but just has not been because the institutions for such organization have not yet been established?

2 thoughts on “Standardization and Coordination Externalities

  1. My own television’s remote has 54 buttons. Four of them seem to do something, but only if I shake the remote furiously while pressing them, as though I were an old man with Parkinson’s disease.
    Those of us who are used to driving on either side of the road still get tripped up by the turn signals and wipers, which are not reversed but which we somehow expect will be. If, on a sunny day in Australia, a car approaches an intersection and turns on its wipers, it means “Hi, I’m from overseas, and I’d like to turn!”
    As for further global standardisation, well, your countrymen still measure in miles and feet. Good thing they can all divide by 5280 in their heads.


Comments are closed.