In 1494, upon Christopher Columbus's return to Europe, delegates from Spain and Portugal met in the Spanish village of Tordesillas to divide the New World. In accord with an earlier papal decree, Portugal asserted dominion over what we now know as Brazil, while Spain claimed the rest of the Americas. However, they could not legislate for all time: the latecomers, Britain and France, would one day control much of the western hemisphere.
Recently, technical standards, especially for telecommunications networks, have come to resemble the Treaty of Tordesillas--they have left out a very important latecomer: China. Take, for example, digital cellular networks, just one of many areas where China is suddenly trying hard to play a role. Here, CDMA cellular technology, dominant in a handful of countries, plays the role of Brazil, while the European-bred GSM standard, like Spain, covers the rest of the new (cellular) world.
Dividing the domain of communications networks into CDMA and GSM has not prevented the emergence of competing technologies, any more than the Treaty of Tordesillas stopped other countries from colonizing the Americas. Today, as the two move from second- to third-generation technologies and beyond, China is backing the creation of an alternative standard called TD-SCDMA, which could markedly change the telecom landscape worldwide, even if adopted only in China's vast home market.
As China steps into the championship ring of international commerce, its nearly 400 million households--all desiring cellphones and DVD players and local area networks--constitute just one of the two well-muscled arms with which it will fight. The other is its status as a leading world supplier of manufactured goods.
So the world needs to take notice when, in another of its recent initiatives, China proposes a standard for tracking goods using radio frequency identification tags, especially when bolstered by a developing coordination with another consumer goods heavyweight, Wal-Mart. The Bentonville, Ark.–based merchandiser, by far the world's largest, plans to lead the way in commercial use of RFID technology, gearing up for the day when every television and razor blade it sells is tagged and tracked from factory to store shelf. Last year, Wal-Mart, by itself, imported goods worth US $18 billion from China--about as much as New Zealand imported from everywhere! China, for its part, exports more goods each year than most countries produce. Worldwide, it sent out about $300 billion worth last year, a number larger than the entire 2004 gross domestic product of Switzerland or Sweden.
China's manufacturing prowess used to be limited to clothing and other simple goods, but today it makes everything from Xboxes to Internet routers. And China's standards initiatives have been in some of the hottest areas of technology. In computer networking, it has one for Wi-Fi security, known as Wireless Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure, or WAPI. The Chinese authorities would like to require that Wi-Fi equipment sold in China comply with the WAPI standard. That threatens to fracture the Wi-Fi world, because the rest of the world won't be using WAPI. Wi-Fi manufacturers would have to make two different chip sets for encrypted communications, one for the Chinese market and one for the rest of the world.
In another hot area, next-generation DVDs, the Chinese have also jumped in, unbidden, in two different ways. First, in July, the government approved Enhanced Video Disk (EVD). It's based on older red-laser technologies, not on blue lasers, as both Blu-ray Disk and HD-DVD are. (There is also a competing red-laser standard to EVD within China, known as HVD.)
China also has an entry in the race for the next generation of software to run on high-definition DVDs. In this other set-to, which concerns the way audio and video data on DVDs are encoded, the roles of Spain and Portugal are played by Apple and Microsoft. Apple has backed MPEG-4, the successor to MPEG-2, which is used to encode most digital video today. Microsoft, on the other hand, has a proprietary scheme, known as Windows Media. Just when the two camps had reluctantly agreed for the standards to coexist, Tordesillas-like (both Blu-ray and HD-DVD will read both formats), along came the Chinese with a third standard, known as Audio Video Coding Standard, or AVS.