De facto standard

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A de facto standard is a custom or convention that has achieved a dominant position by public acceptance or market forces (for example, by early entrance to the market).[1] De facto is a Latin phrase (literally "in fact"), here meaning "in practice but not necessarily ordained by law" or "in practice or actuality, but not officially established".

The term de facto standard follows an informal standard setting process and is used in contrast with the formal system where international standards are defined by organizations such as International Standards Organization, or set out in law (also known as de jure standards), or to express the dominant voluntary standard when there is more than one standard available for the same use.[1] Joint technical committee on information technology (ISO/IEC JTC1) developed a procedure in order for de facto standards to be processed through the formal standardization system to be transformed into international standards from ISO and IEC.[2]

In social sciences a voluntary standard that is also a de facto standard is a typical solution to a coordination problem.[3] The choice of a de facto standard tends to be stable in situations in which all parties can realize mutual gains, but only by making mutually consistent decisions. In contrast, an enforced de jure standard is a solution to the prisoner's problem.[3]


Examples of some well known de facto standards:

Examples of file formats:

  • PDF was first created in 1993 by Adobe. Adobe internal standards were part of its software quality systems, but they were neither published nor coordinated by a standards body. With the Acrobat Reader program available for free, and continued support of the format, PDF eventually became the de facto standard for printable documents. In 2005, PDF/A became a de jure standard as ISO 19005-1:2005.[5] In 2008 Adobe's PDF 1.7 became ISO 32000-1:2008.[6][7]
  • AutoCAD DXF, an ASCII format for import and export of CAD drawings and fragments in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, XML based standards emerged as de facto standards.
  • The MP3 audio format started as an alternative to WAV for internet music distribution, then replaced it. It is now supported by the vast majority of music players, audio transport, audio storage, and non-commercial media
  • Microsoft Word DOC. Due to the market dominance of Word, it is supported by all office applications that intend to compete with it, typically by reverse engineering the undocumented file format. Microsoft has repeatedly internally changed the file specification between versions of Word to suit their own needs, while continuing to reuse the same file extension identifier for different versions.
  • FITS and CSV file formats, commonly used in science and engineering, with FITS traditionally used in astronomy.

Various connectors and interconnect standards:

  • Phone connector (3.5 mm jack), RCA and XLR connectors, used in the audio industry for connecting audio equipment such as headphones, mixing desks, microphones, stage lighting, etc.
  • MIDI connection (using DIN connector or Phone connector), electrical and protocol standard for connecting musical instruments, synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, and some audio equipment.
  • DMX512 (commonly just DMX) with XLR connector to control and sometimes power stage and venue lights, effects, smoke machines, laser projectors, and pyrotechnics.
  • PCI Express electrical and mechanical interface, and interconnect protocol used in computers, servers, and industrial applications.
  • GPIB, multi-device bus protocol, mechanical and electronic interface commonly found in electronic test equipment, e.g. digital multimeters, oscilloscopes, etc. Initially created by Hewlett Hewlett-Packard as HP-IP. Commonly used with SCPI protocol.
  • HDMI, Display Port, VGA for video, RS-232 for low bandwidth serial communication.
  • USB for high speed serial interface in computers and for powering or charging low power external devices (like mobile phones, headphones, portable hard drives) usually using micro USB plug and socket.
  • BNC for medium frequency signal in electronic engineering testing (commonly used by signal generators, oscilloscopes, multimeters, etc.) and sometimes in video signal delivery between devices in studios and other professional settings.
  • AMP's AMP MATE-N-LOK / Molex's Standard .093" Pin Power plug and socket, commonly used on hard drives, and other medium power devices both in PC, server, industrial applications, and others where standardized power connector for 5V and 12V is required, and off the shelf PSU can be used. In embedded applications it is usually replaced with smaller square connector, that is easier to connect.
  • 2.54 mm (0.1 inch) pin spacing on many electronic components, including DIP, SIL packages, header connectors, and many more. The standard spacing enable use of these devices in prototyping boards and standardized sockets.
  • 4-20mA current loop, used in industrial control and automation.
  • 3.5 inch and 2.5 inch hard drives.
  • 19-inch rack standards for telecommunication, server, storage, audio, music, video, and power equipment.
  • ATX motherboard, back plane, and power standards.

Materials and units of packaging:

  • Soldering alloys in electronics, like Sn60Pb40.
  • Aluminium alloys, such as 6061.
  • Intermodal 48-foot container.

Other examples:

  • Many American-made spark plugs require a 1316-inch hex socket (21mm) to remove or install.
  • The 1/2 inch (12.7mm) spacing of the rollers in a bicycle chain.
  • The IBM Personal Computer (PC). By one year after its 1981 release, John Dvorak described the PC as rapidly becoming a "de facto standard microcomputer".[8] With the MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows operating systems, it gained a large share of the personal computer market. Because of the great influence of the IBM PC on the personal computer market, competing products like the Rainbow 100 were eventually withdrawn.
  • Programming languages that have multiple implementations such as PHP tend to also have a de facto standard. In PHP's case the de facto standard is the binaries available from, rather than the Phalanger implementation.
  • Use of programming languages R and Python in science and engineering disciplines, other than computer science, where automated analysis of data is required, while remaining simple enough for a non-professional.
  • TeX typesetting system, commonly used in creating scientific articles and reports for publication (in fact many journals require the publication to be fully written in TeX).[9]


There are many examples of de facto consolidation of a standard by market forces and competition, in a two-sided market, after a dispute. Examples:

An example of an ongoing dispute is OASIS's OpenDocument format vs Microsoft's Office Open XML format.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Campbell, Robert; Pentz, Ed; Borthwick, Ian (2012). Academic and Professional Publishing. Chandos Publishing. p. 9.
  2. ^ International standards and private standards. Geneva,Switzerland: International Organization for Standardization. February 2010. ISBN 978-92-67-10518-5.
  3. ^ a b Edna Ullmann-Margalit (5 March 2015). The Emergence of Norms. OUP Oxford. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-19-106458-6.
  4. ^ Berners-Lee, Tim (November 1995). "Hypertext Markup Language – 2.0". MIT.
  5. ^ "ISO 19005-1:2005 – Document management -- Electronic document file format for long-term preservation -- Part 1: Use of PDF 1.4 (PDF/A-1)". Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  6. ^ "ISO 32000-1:2008 – Document management -- Portable document format -- Part 1: PDF 1.7". Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  7. ^ "Adobe – Release PDF for Industry Standardization FAQ". Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  8. ^ Zussman, John Unger (1982-08-23). "Let's keep those systems open". InfoWorld. p. 29. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  9. ^ Beebe, Nelson H. F. (2003). "25 Years of TEX and METAFONT: Looking Back and Looking Forward" (PDF). TUGboat: 10.