The Cost of Wireless Standards

How much does it cost to produce a wireless standard?  And how long does it take?  Surprisingly those aren’t questions that are asked very often – probably because most developers are happy to use what already exists rather than starting again from scratch.

In the UK, some members of the smart metering programme have begun asking these questions, potentially for the wrong reasons.  They’ve realised that ZigBee – the current front-runner for the UK smart metering deployment, can’t provide the range to cope with every single house or block of flats, and have started wondering about whether it might make sense to start again from scratch.

A few years ago, when I was writing my book on the Essentials of Short Range Wireless I attempted to put some numbers to those questions.  It seems an appropriate time to publish them, as the answers are a lot more and a lot longer than most people think.

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In Praise of Cables

For most of the last twenty or so years I seem to have started off the year by writing an article claiming that this would finally be the one when wireless data takes off.  It’s nice to see things changing: Wi-Fi is finally starting to move outside internet access for PCs and Phone, Bluetooth Smart is appearing in desirable consumer devices and should trigger an avalanche of connected accessories, and smart metering is bringing ZigBee and Wireless M-Bus into homes as a static PAN.  That doesn’t mean that there are not still massive unexplored opportunities in M2M, but it’s good progress.

Instead of the obvious call for more, I’d like to look back at the many advantages of cables.  As designers rush into wireless, it’s easy to forget what they’re giving up.  Wireless offers new opportunities, but only at the expense of many serious compromises.  In this brave new world of wireless it’s apparent that some people are forgetting those compromises.  In this and the following article I’m going to look at what they are and then address the misconception that wireless standards can be treated in the same way as wired ones, debunking the common misconception that they follow the OSI model.

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Let the Wireless Wars Begin

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.

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Ten Wireless Standards, Sitting on the Wall…

The Smart Metering industry is deperate to decide on a standard for short range communication.  The UK Goverment has rushed through its consultation with a deadline for a technical standard by the end of next year, and in the US, SGIP’s PAP02 group wants to do it even faster.  Whilst we need to start deploying devices, it concerns me that there’s a rush to make decisions with very little consideration of the relative merits of the different contenders.

There’s no shortage of contenders.  At the last count I came across ten short range wireless standards that all think they should be the winner.  Those include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Wavenis, Dash7, wireless MBUS, wireless KNX, DECT, Z-Wave and Bluetooth low energy.  And they’re just the industry developed standards.

What worried me even more than the obvious rush was a off-hand comment made in a European standards meeting that I attended earlier this year.  One of the people responsible for deciding on a common standard for Europe made the comment that “we’re not going to give any time to industry standards”.  The subject of her venom was ZigBee, but it’s a charge that I’m increasingly hearing levelled at all of the “industry” standards.  It appears there’s a perception amongst members of the older established Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) that because industry standards have not been produced by their traditional specification process, they’re not as good.  That’s a very dangerous approach to take.

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Smart Energy & Strange Alliances

It’s been an odd month for Smart Energy, or at least for the wireless standards that are tackling connectivity around the home.  If you were to go back six months, then, at least in the U.S., the general consensus would have been that ZigBee had the market tied up.  It had the only profile with “Smart Energy” in its name and was winning the PR battle hands down.

Within the major working groups, things weren’t quite so clear.  NIST, which has been trying to herd the wireless cats into some semblance of order started a more thorough analysis of just what existed, which saw an increased emphasis on other members of the IEEE 802 standards family, bolstering the fortunes of Wi-Fi (in its 802.11 incarnation) and Bluetooth (in its 802.15.1-2005 form).  And it made its preferences clear about a need for IP support.  But the status quo didn’t seem to shift very much as a result.

Then, last month, Bluetooth emerged from its normal mode of PR silence to announce the formation of a Smart Energy Study Group.  The fact that Emerson, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of home HVAC devices was one of the sponsors for the group caused some noticeable shivers in the Smart Energy marketplace.

This week, there were more ripples, when Wi-Fi and ZigBee announced their Alliance of Alliances to jointly provide an in-home solution for Smart Energy.  The Twitterati thought it significant, but what was behind it?  Is it deadly rivals joining forces against a common enemy, or is there more going on? 

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Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth – battle to the death?

The media lapped up the recent press release from the Wi-Fi Alliance, announcing the birth of Wi-Fi Direct.  Almost to a man, they decided once again that it would kill Bluetooth.  I suspect that Bluetooth will prove to have something in common with Mark Twain, being able to sit back and calmly repeat that “the report of my death is an exaggeration”.

For many of the reports, that analysis seems to be based on little more than the relative number of press releases that the two organisations send out.  For some reason known only to itself, the Bluetooth SIG is remarkably reticent about publicising its technology, preferring to sit quietly on its laurels of shipments of over a billion chips per year (1,050 million in 2008 – IMS).  Wi-Fi tends to be more vociferous about its plans, possibly stung by the fact that it manages to ship only just over a third of that (387 million in 2008 – Instat).  As is often the case with young pretenders, noise can be rather more noticeable than actions.  (Incidentally, no other short range standard gets within an order of magnitude of the lower of these figures.)

A few articles dug down a bit more into the technology itself, and came to less of a conclusion as a result.  None of them thought about what really matters, which is what the user experience will look like.  So let’s do exactly that…

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