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.
The first question that most designers ask when adding wireless to their product is “which wireless standard to use?” In some cases, where it is connecting to an existing product, that’s easy to answer. If it’s not, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s one reason I wrote a book about it – to try and help designers answer that question. But another part of the same question is how well the different standards promote themselves as a solution?
This year has seen some major changes within some of those wireless standards. The ZigBee Alliance has lost Benno Ritter – for many years the global marketing face of ZigBee. And the Bluetooth SIG has replaced its Chairman, Mike Foley, as well as its CTO, Andy Glass. Both are interesting moves, as each of these standards is still evolving. ZigBee is taking on smart lighting, home automation and smart metering, whilst Bluetooth is finally seeing Bluetooth Smart appearing in the mainstream. In a recent issue of Incisor magazine, Vince Holton wrote about the loss of passion within the Bluetooth SIG – a sentiment that I’d echo and also extend to some of the other wireless standards. But that’s an opinion formed from being close to these groups. A few years ago I ran to survey to try and see what the general engineering opinion was of the different wireless standards. Prompted by Vince’s article, I thought it would be useful to run the survey again to see what designers think as we approach the end of 2012.
One of the more interesting recent announcements in the wireless space has been the appointment of two new companies to the Board of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) – Apple and Nordic Semiconductor.
Neither are immediately obvious candidates, which is what makes this interesting. But taking a deeper look their appointment could highlight some interesting changes in where Bluetooth is going.
It’s been an interesting week for the short range wireless standards. The two terrible teenagers, ANT and ZigBee have both shown signs of their growing maturity, starting to position themselves as far more serious contenders in the market place. In the wake of their move from adolescence, a new toddler has emerged in the form of Toumaz, with their announcement of their Telran chip.
What has been missing is any reaction, or in fact much sign of any action from their elder siblings – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As large manufacturers continue to tighten their belts, one of the less noticed effects has been a steady withdrawal of engineering support from standards organisations. In the past, many of these have been staffed with seconded experts from the big names in industry. Increasingly those big names are withdrawing, relying largely on chip vendors to push their interests within the standards organisations. That’s left Wi-Fi and Bluetooth battling to persuade industry members that either standard has a development future, with certain of their members considering that the job has been done.
Which opens up the field for the former competitors to claim some potentially interesting parts of the market.
It’s always interesting seeing how industries react to new entrants. ANT has been having a successful time in persuading sports and fitness manufacturers to use its standard for wireless connectivity. That’s partly because it does what it says on the tin and partly because it’s not had a lot of competition.
This week, following the launch of Bluetooth low energy, the FAQ on the ANT website makes the strange claim that once Bluetooth low energy becomes available in mobile phones, ANT devices can take advantage of a bridge in watches to talk to phones. It’s difficult to understand what, other than desperation at the advent of real competition, is driving them to say that. It’s like telling vegetarians that you have a cunning plan which will enable them to eat meat.