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”.
Mark Twain famously said (or almost said) “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Just when you thought it was safe to stay at home and live with slow speed wireless data transfer, UWB has performed a similar reincarnation, appearing to rise, Lazarus-like, from its grave with the announcement of two new chipsets from Samsung and CSR.
UWB has had a chequered history of ups and downs. Last year, when I started writing my book “Essentials of Short Range Wireless”, I planned a chapter on it as it seemed to be experiencing something of a renaissance. Half way through writing the book, a number of the key chip companies folded and I removed the chapter. It looks as if I may have acted prematurely.
Why the resurgence of interest? UWB has had a turbulent history, with many of the start-up companies supporting it going bust as the industry embarked on its love affair with ever faster variants of Wi-Fi. The answer comes back to the classic divide between the PC and mobile phone industries and the feature that separates them more than anything else: one has a power cord and the other doesn’t.
Two of the new wireless technologies that have come to the fore this year are high speed peer to peer connectivity and femtocells. Although they may not appear to have any obvious connection, I would argue that they do. Moreover that connection is so strong that they will end up fighting a technology war between themselves for a key customer application. That’s because they both have a major impact on the way that users transfer data between their personal devices. Today these two technologies are barely aware of each other – they’re both too busy gazing at their respective technical navels and ignoring the user requirements. Within twelve months, when they understand the real use cases they’re enabling, they may well be at each other’s throats.
Most technologies are born and either survive or die. UWB (Ultra Wide Band) seems determined to do it differently, by constantly reincarnating itself and never quite getting there.It’s currently at another inflection point in its serendipitous life cycle and it’s not at all obvious whether it will survive this one.
I was recently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan, where I discovered that he had invented an acronym which struck me as remarkably apposite – the Universal Will to Believe. In his case it’s probably nothing to do with wireless (although it could be), but is the mysterious power source in Tralfamodorean spaceships that is harnessed to power the Martian fleet of flying saucers.Obscure power sources for space travel seem to be a recurring theme in science fiction, as Douglas Adams created something remarkably similar a few decades later, with his Infinite Probability Drive in the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.And recurring themes and reinvention are eerily common in the curious world of UWB.