Standards are the things that make the Internet work. Almost always they take the form of protocols that everyone has agreed on.
Standardized protocols provide a common meeting ground for software designers. Without standards, it is unlikely that an IBM computer could transfer files from a Macintosh, or print to a NetWare server, or login to a Sun. The technical literature of the Internet consists primarily of standard protocols that define how software and hardware from wildly divergent sources can interact on the net.
Standards come in two flavors - de facto and de jure. De facto standards are common practices; de jure standards have been "blessed" by some official standards body. In the Internet, many different organizations try to play the standards game. IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force, is chief among them. IETF issues the RFCs that define Internet Standards, and it is IETF's working groups that do the real work of developing new and enhanced Internet standards. ISO, the International Standards Organization, issues the OSI standards. IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, issues key LAN standards such as Ethernet and Token-Ring. ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, issues FDDI. As the common oxymoron goes, "The nice thing about standards is that there's so many to choose from."
IETF's standards deserve special mention, since it is these standards, more than any other, that make the Internet work. IETF issues its standards as Requests For Comments (RFCs), but not all RFCs are standards. To understand IETF's standardization process, start with Internet Standard 1, "Official Internet Protocol Standards", which discusses the process and lists the current status of various Internet standards. Since RFCs, once issued, do not change, Standard 1 is periodically updated and reissued as a new RFC. At the time of this writing (October 1998), the most recent Standard 1 is RFC 2400.
The Internet Society (ISOC), IETF's parent organization, has a long-standing commitment to open standards. RFC 1602, "Internet Standards Process", includes the following statement: