Electronic Design

Whither Wireless?

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a, b, g, WiMax, ZigBee, NFC. Buy 'em, bag 'em, shopping spree. If they don't work, don't call me!

And the above bit doesn't even include the latest BW variation in a series that has outdone itself in consumer confusion, 802.11n (No! Wait! Pre-n!). There's a host of yet-to-come wireless wannabes too. It's not surprising that this nursery rhyme of standards confuses Joe and Betty Consumer. And to think that these standards ultimately are the source of the money chain determining our survival.

There has been weeping and gnashing of teeth over the past several years thanks to many wireless efforts grinding to an agonizing halt. Take Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Few startups remain. Many industry leaders have even thrown in the towel. And although the growth and volumes of both are quite healthy today, there were long periods for both where hype exceeded reality by significant margins.

Why did a whole bunch of companies fail in one or both of these technologies? Many believe that the blame falls squarely on the infamous burst of the Bubble, followed by the classic Industry Consolidation. There's no argument from me that these factors are the biggest contributors. But there's more, and there's something each of us can do to help. These issues may seem small and far away compared to the Big Issue you may be working on today. But like objects in a convex rearview mirror, it's unwise to ignore them.

They're good, and they're necessary, but they're difficult. The pre-release of ICs and end products to the market can have two very bad effects. First, there will be great interoperability issues with early products, affecting consumers' willingness to part with their hard-earned dollars the next time someone wants to unwire them. Second, it encourages the rest of the industry to rush out versions without proper testing and bug fixing-with predictable consequences. Go ahead and eavesdrop at the returns counter at your favorite local e-outlet.

It's now the essential differentiating ingredient of any wireless end product. Sorry RF fans. Not many designers can develop the lower-layer hardware and make their radios interconnect flawlessly. Yet even fewer can develop stable firmware and good user interfaces that give consumers a positive experience. Consumers still must jump through too many hoops to get their e-boxes to play together, and hardware isn't the reason!

In the physical-layer (PHY) world, co-existence keeps getting more important. Stop worrying about your marketing manager's obsession with which technology will "win." Instead, re-double your efforts to reduce spectral emissions in (and near) the bands where your products will be used. Work out cooperative methods for multiple standards. For example, consider a quad-band cell phone with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and NFC. Playing nice with the other bands is essential for a good customer experience. Consumers don't expect incoming calls to their cell phone to corrupt a 256-Mbyte wireless transfer of pictures from their phone's CF card to their photo storage drive.

USB proved that consumers like Plug and Play. WiFi and Bluetooth have shown that they like Unplug and Play even better. There's much to improve in the user experience, though, and it will take all our efforts to make a much bigger pie than we enjoy today.

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