The mobile industry loves hype. Now that 4G phones have reached the market, suppliers are keen to promote the next dollop of “jam tomorrow” by offering the world 5G – something that’s still rather nebulous, but as always in this industry, allegedly better than what we have today. Most users have still to experience 4G, but that’s par for the course. The industry loves something new, preferably with a bigger number. It begs the question of whether we need it, and even what it is? To try and answer these questions it’s instructive to look back at the history of mobile to see just what the “G”s mean.
Today Google and Nest launched the Thread Group – a new wireless network for home automation. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last, but it has some important names behind it. The big two are Google and Nest, not least because Nest’s products may already be using it. But others in the consortium are interesting. ARM is there. Today they power most of our mobile phones, providing the IP behind the processors in billions of chips. But they have a vision of being the microprocessor architecture of choice for the Internet of Things. They processors will be smaller, cheaper and lower powered, but will provide the first opportunity for chip vendors to think about trillions. ARM’s inclusion in the group is an obvious step in their process of acquisition and investment in IoT companies.
Samsung are there (aren’t they always), but so are some very large names in home automation, such as Big Ass Fans and Chubb. And what must be worrying the ZigBee community is that Freescale and Silicon Labs complete the list of founder members.
The important point here is that Thread is not ZigBee. It works in the same spectrum and can use the same chips. It is also a mesh network. But it is not compatible. As the Thread technology backgrounder says, they looked at other radio standards and found them lacking, so they started working on a new wireless mesh protocol. To put it more crudely, it’s Google and Nest saying “ZigBee doesn’t work”.
Investing in a new wireless standard can be an expensive experiment. The investment can be vast, as I’ve described in a previous article on the cost of wireless standards. It’s not unusual for the combined cost of writing and bringing a standard to market to run into billions of dollars. When a standard loses out to a competing one, it’s a heavy loss both for the VCs who have invested in it as well as the companies who have worked on it. The problem is that there’s not been a good way of determining in advance which standards will succeed and which will fail.
Up until this point, the only real yardstick has been the Intel test. That’s the principal that if Intel invests heavily in a wireless standard (think HomeRF, WiMedia or WiMax), then the standard will fail spectacularly. Conversely, if Intel withdraws its development effort from a wireless standard, as they did in the early days of Bluetooth back in 2002, then the standard will be a roaring success. The Intel test isn’t a perfect one – it fails to predict the acceptance of Wi-Fi, but with a track record of four predictions out of five, it’s a lot better than just flipping a coin.
What the industry needs is a new test. I’m going to suggest the Byron test. It’s a more literary approach, suited to the alphabet soup of the 802.11 family of wireless standards and inspired by the popular description of the romantic poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
Back in 2010, Mark Thomas, the head of PA Consulting’s Strategy and Market practice published a book called The Zombie Economy. In it he defined a Zombie company as one which is generating just about enough cash to service its debt, so the bank is not obliged to pull the plug on the loan. The issue with such companies is that they can limp along, and just about survive, but as they don’t have enough money to invest, they fall over once the economy picks up, as they become uncompetitive. The problem they pose is that by continuing to exist in this Zombie state they threaten the development of other companies, acting as a damper to more sustainable businesses.
It struck me that there’s a close analogy in the area of wireless standards where we have what are effectively Zombie wireless standards. There’s not necessarily anything fundamentally wrong with these individual standards, other than that they have failed to get traction and so limp along. Here, the problem is that they tend to jealously claim a particular application sector or market segment, blocking other more successful standards from entering. That has a damping effect on product development, creating silos which keep putting off innovation in the hope that one day the standard will gain traction, constantly delaying growth and interoperability. Because they’re not being incorporated into enough products, they have effectively lost their ability to function and have become half-dead, half-alive ‘Zombies’.
I think it’s time to recognise the damage that this is doing. Rather than pursuing multiple parallel paths, the industry needs to concentrate on a far smaller number of short range wireless standards. They in turn need to embrace the requirements of a wider range of sectors.
Most people have never heard of Appcessories, but they’re set to become one of the biggest growth areas of the decade, with a potential market value of over $130 billion by 2020, as shown in the new report “To Ubiquity and Beyond”. Most analysts have missed them, as they’re made possible by the convergence of a set of disparate elements coming together, most notably the incorporation of Bluetooth Smart in mobile phones and tablets, low cost and easy to use silicon for hardware developers, and published APIs which allows developers of phone Apps to talk to connected devices. Throw in the innovation that is arising out of crowd-funding initiatives like Kickstarter and indiegogo and you have the ingredients for a new revolution in connected consumer goods.
What is an Appcessory? Think of a cuddly toy for your three year old which interacts with the story on her tablet. Think of the stylus you use for sketching on your iPad, where squeezing it changes the thickness or colour of the lines you’re painting. Or a motor and rudder you clip on a paper plane which lets you control its flight by tipping your smartphone from side to side. LED lights that come on when you enter the room, which you can program the colour of, or which even sense your mood from the way you’re walking. Armbands that know you’re about to point at the TV and tell it to change channel before you even move your finger. Clothes that tell you they need washing. Many things that until recently were the preserve of science fiction, but are about to become possible and eminently affordable.
There are certain products that I’ve always wanted to see appear on the market. Not necessarily because I want to have one, but because they appeal to the imagination and the concept of what it’s possible to do. One of these is the Bluetooth toilet. It’s a product I’ve suggested should exist in various presentations I’ve given over the years as an example of something that may initially sound silly, but could be quite useful. My argument is that amongst other things it could be a valid way of checking how often a toilet is used, which could be an early indicator for prostate cancer. Normally you can count on the Consumer Electronics Show – CES, which kicked off in Las Vegas this week, for some fairly off-the wall, wacky products, but as far as the Bluetooth toilet is concerned, someone else got in first.
The first company that I’m aware of to wirelessly enable a toilet was Greengoose, who have a sensor that you can fit to the toilet seat to determine whether or not it’s been left up by the most recent male user. They see it as a fun application, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, just before CES got going I came across a far more serious Bluetooth toilet from Lixil in Japan. There’s even a promotional video of it.