Zombie Wireless Standards

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.

Let’s start with the wireless standards that are firmly in the land of the living.  There are three of them – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart.  (If you think the last two are the same, they’re not – have a look at this article.)  There are two reasons for singling these three out, which is the installed base and the rate at which they are growing.  Each of these three is already incorporated into hundreds of millions of products and that number is growing year on year.   These two points bestow a lot of advantages to the standards.  The most important one is that it provides critical mass.  It allows enough companies to make profits from supporting the necessary elements of the standard, whether that’s designing chips, writing protocol stacks, developing applications or providing testing and certification services.  That ensures that there is a vibrant ecosystem of people with a vested interest in working to make the standard cheaper and easier to use, and also to evolve and improve the standard.  It’s not cheap to develop a global wireless standard – it needs the industry to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars, which only happens if the standard is being used.

When a wireless standard becomes established, it begins to invest in a different level of detail.  As more companies introduce it into their products, interoperability, security and robustness become more important to make sure that it works in the real world, rather than just in the lab.  These are the much less glamorous aspects of standards development, but they’re the ones that increase confidence in it, generating a virtuous circle of development.

In contrast, the Zombie standards tend to concentrate their limited development resource into adding bells and whistles to meet the perceived requirements of niche market after niche market. But they rarely finish the work, instead devoting time to aggressive PR to conceal these deficiencies.  The problem here is that without the resource to solve interoperability, backwards compatibility and certification issues, each niche market will waste time flirting with these standards before discarding them.  Having been bitten, they then lose confidence in wireless, putting back the evolution of that particular sector.

Zombie standards can generally be spotted because they advertise their merit either with a single technical feature, or a single, highly vertical market.  As I’ve said before, they’re not necessarily flawed or inadequate, but they fail to achieve the scale they need to become robust and then evolve with their markets.  However, their continued existence threatens much larger market segments who mistakenly back them, particularly when the relationship results in the manufacturers within that segment losing faith in wireless.

It’s time to name them, and there is something of an irony that two at the top of the list coincidentally start with “z” and end with “e” – ZigBee and Z-Wave.  ZigBee has always sold itself on its mesh capability, although its most significant deployments in smart metering have generally failed to use that feature.  It follows the pattern of trying to change its spots to court any potential suitor.  Hence we’ve had versions for health devices, home automation, TV remote controls, lighting and smart metering.  Within the smart metering sector alone there are now five different versions of the specification with limited to no interoperability between them.  That leaves product manufacturers with a real concern, as they have very little confidence that a product they bring to market will work with other products, or that the standard will remain backwardly compatible with a future version in a few years’ time.

Z-Wave has not been through as many versions, and offers a correspondingly better level of interoperability.  But it shares the issue of other Zombie standards, which is that it does not, nor is ever likely to exist within smartphones or tablets.  That leads to a double whammy that is fatal to most Zombie wireless standards.  The first issue is that in order to make their product usable, manufacturers have to supply both ends of the wireless link, which costs more.  The second is that because their devices can’t be controlled from a smartphone or tablet, they don’t have access to the millions of apps developers who are constantly upping the pace of development and expectation of user experience.  That means that many of the Zombie wireless products start to look outdated, often before they even come to market.

ANT+ is another contender for a Zombie standard.  It has done well in fitness devices, and has even made it into a few smartphones, but there’s a growing trend for companies that used ANT+ in their products to jump to Bluetooth Smart, led by some of the leading fitness brands.  The option of connecting to an iPhone or iPad is just too persuasive.  In response, ANT is starting to promote itself as a contender for smart homes, following the well trodden path of other Zombie standards of constantly looking for another niche where they can pretend to be a big fish in a small pond.

You can level some of the blame for creating Zombie standards at the doors of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  The Zombies have survived because the larger standards never showed any great commitment to niches such as sports and fitness or smart energy.  If they had, these standards would never have achieved the limited traction they have.  But that has led to a classic Catch-22 situation.  Bluetooth and Wi-Fi ignored these markets, allowing the Zombie standards to claim ownership of them.  When these markets started to take off, manufacturers using these Zombie standards found that customers couldn’t connect the products to their smartphones and tablets, limiting the market size and blocking any disruptive newcomers.  This meant there was little market growth, so the established standards continued to ignore the markets.

There’s a further problem arising from the lack of growth.  Without ongoing funding from market usage, standards tend to atrophy.  That’s a problem for commercial applications, as the environment in which a standard has to operate is not static.  New standards and increased deployment of competing standards clog the spectrum, making coexistence more of a problem.  Unless a standard can track this and evolve, it risks becoming less and less effective in an ever more congested spectrum.

Zombie standards don’t just distort the market, they distort the way we train engineers, not least because they seem to be happy for academia to abuse and misuse then.  Rather than training young engineers and designers to use mainstream wireless standards, too many universities concentrate on these Zombie standards, presumably because they feel that they can change and tinker with them without anybody getting upset.  ZigBee is a classic offender, happy to lend its name to anything a student builds using a 802.15.4 radio. This cavalier attitude to the principles of a standard results in a steady stream of graduates who need several years of retraining before they’re of use to companies  developing commercial products.

The Zombie effect doesn’t apply to proprietary wireless, which still has advantages.  If you want lowest power, greatest range, or if there is any other parameter where you can’t compromise performance, proprietary remains a good choice.  The only issue is that it throws away interoperability.  But if you can own the entirety of an application, proprietary wireless has a lot going for it.  Many of the Zombie standards could have a future as a proprietary solution if they ever get over losing their desire to be a brand.  The only issue in this case is who then owns and develops them, particularly who owns the IP.  One of the rarely spoken facts about Zombie standards is that using them may mean you’re infringing patents, because they don’t embrace enough member companies to give them sufficient IP coverage.

So there are two wake-up calls.  The first is for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to recognise and engage with the markets that the Zombie standards are now stifling, bringing relevant companies into their standards processes and giving them the features they need.  The second is for manufacturers to realise which way the wind is blowing and move their efforts to these mainstream standards.  With these in place, silicon companies, who are currently burdened with the overhead of supporting multiple protocols, can concentrate their resources into the ones that will make a difference.

As with the Zombie companies, it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that they’ve failed, but the markets need consolidation.  They won’t be the first wireless standards to fail and they won’t be the last.  But if we want growth, we need to clear the field for innovation that can succeed at volume, not just in a range of niche products.  Because it’s in everyone interest to turn niches into vibrant ecosystems.