Approving A Standard Is Anything But Standard

April 14, 2003
The GSM Association, representing the world's leading digital cell-phone faction, attacked competing standard supporters at a recent meeting in Cannes, France, for spreading "misinformation" about its favored standard, wideband-CDMA (W-CDMA). With 80%...

The GSM Association, representing the world's leading digital cell-phone faction, attacked competing standard supporters at a recent meeting in Cannes, France, for spreading "misinformation" about its favored standard, wideband-CDMA (W-CDMA). With 80% of digital wireless carriers specifying W-CDMA, the GSMA considers it the de facto global standard.

These battles aren't unique. Standards have become one of the most elusive issues in the industry and also one of the most politicized.

At their best, technical standards meet the immediate needs of the manufacturer, and hopefully, the marketplace. Increasingly, though, their development lags behind the technology. Some vendors are jumping into the market even before standards are finalized.

"People jump the gun," says Howard Sachs, president and CEO of fabless ASIC house Telairity Semiconductor and former president of the Virtual Socket Interface Alliance, the standards organization for developing hardware and software for system-on-a-chip (SoC) design and design reuse. "They're trying to get some quick market share."

IEEE 802.11 is an all-too-excellent example. Companies such as Linksys Group, Melco, Belkin, D-Link, Buffalo Technology, Proxim, and semiconductor houses Texas Instruments, Intersil, Broadcom, and others are shipping devices based on an IEEE draft standard of 802.11g wireless local-area networks. The "g" version of the standard isn't expected to be finalized until June (see "802.11: What The Letters Mean," p. 52). In fact, Broadcom has already shipped 2 million chip sets based on the 802.11g draft.

"Since 802.11g is not yet a standard, it's clear that the market is ahead of the standard by several months," says analyst Will Strauss, head of Forward Concepts. Strauss expects the 802.11a market to have a very short life, giving way to mostly converged 802.11b and 802.11g devices.

Rather than attempt to get involved in interoperability and performance tweaks at a later date, some vendors, including Agere Systems and Hewlett-Packard, plan to wait until the standard is ratified before shipping 802.11g-based products. Avaya, Motorola, and Proxim announced plans to jointly develop products that marry 802.11 with cell-phone networks.

Reports of interoperability problems of 802.11g products have begun to mount. Some of these devices can't talk to each other, and there are cases of 802.11g devices reverting to the slower-speed 802.11b in mixed 802.11b/g networks.

STANDARD SIDE EFFECTS Carriers and their suppliers are pressured to deliver on the wireless data vision they've promoted for years. Yet they now realize that revenue-generating wireless content can't realistically be created without openness to developers, interoperability, and standards. But according to Jessica Figueras, a senior analyst at Ovum Research, wireless equipment vendors like Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola may also want to consider the side effects of greater openness.

"For some time," she says, "these vendors have been part of an exclusive club of suppliers to wireless carriers." In fact, they have been extending their dominance with new carrier offerings like browsing and messaging. "But the forces of standardization and convergence are already driving long-term changes in the industry, which will make things uncomfortable for some wireless vendors."

Figueras sees two forces at work here. First, opening up to content providers and developers means allowing other software vendors into the market. Additionally, and perhaps making an even bigger impact, she says, carriers are now changing their approach to investment in software. The new focus is on rapid and flexible development and integration. This is because creating new applications and connecting to new partners is now an ongoing and dynamic process. "Users of technology often can't afford to wait before implementing the functionality they need," she notes.

Software is so complex, she says, there are areas where an industry standard can provide all that might be needed, within a reasonable timeframe. So vendors commonly add "extensions" to standards to provide the richest functionality possible.

Data synchronization is a good example. SyncML is being developed to standardize the synchronization of mobile devices. But synchronization is so complex, Figueras doubts the standard will ever be rich enough to seriously threaten the need for proprietary syncing products. "Even if the SyncML standardization group managed to agree on everything, it would take them so long that the standard would lag too far behind real-world developments to be of any use," she says.

VoiceXML is another example. "Some vendors are going beyond VoiceXML Version 2.0 with extensions, probably envisioning what will be part of 3.0 and 4.0," says Eric Jackson, vice president for strategy and business development of Toronto-based Voice Genie and marketing chairman of the VoiceXML Forum, an industry group formed in 1999 to create and promote the Voice Extensible Markup Language.

Last fall, the VoiceXML Forum passed responsibility for managing the development of future versions of its standard on to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), primarily due to a duplication of effort. The W3C is working to bring Web-based content to interactive voice response applications. "They didn't want to slow the standards development process down by forcing the industry to jump through two hoops," says Jackson. As a result, the forum now focuses on marketing, conformance, tools development, and education.

In January, the W3C published V2.0 as a W3C Candidate Recommendation, which is a call for implementation. Even though V2.0 is seen in the industry as a de facto standard, several vendors continue to market products using proprietary standards. "It's going to take some time to replace these proprietary standards," says Jackson.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is pitching its own voice technology and standards, forming the Speech Application Language Tags (SALT) Forum last year. Several companies developing voice applications belong to both the VoiceXML and SALT forums.

LACK OF STANDARDS One of the frustrations for some segments of the industry is the dearth of standards. Cell phones and PDAs may support a number of development platforms, like Java, Qualcomm's BREW, or Microsoft's .Net-based Web services. (Microsoft is seeking patents covering key aspects of its .Net platform that could let it control how software developers link to .Net-based platforms. According to some industry sources, these could also slow the development of industry standards for Web services.)

This is a concern among mobile game developers who face different carrier hardware systems and data formats in various geographic locations. A wireless game that supports a Japanese-developed game may not work on a 3G wireless network in Europe or other parts of Asia. Without standards, vendors will have to produce different systems for different markets.

MACHINE VISION CHALLENGES Biometrics is another example of the struggle to develop meaningful standards in an area represented by a broad swath of technologies and applications (see "Battle For Biometric Standards," p. 54). Machine vision technology also falls into that category. Market research house Frost & Sullivan says that developing a common standard for this technology is necessary to increase the system component and capability options available to end users and to make systems more appealing.

"The lack of operating standards within the machine vision industry creates difficulties in developing and operating vision systems, and end users often cannot connect desired components," says Sunderraju Ramachandran, an F&S research analyst. "Conflicts between components, computer software and hardware technologies, and user interfaces reduce credibility for the industry as a whole as there exists no plug-and-play for a generic system."

IEEE'S ROLE Recognizing the breakneck pace of technological advances, the IEEE adjusted its standards development process. For one, it formed the IEEE Industry Standards and Technology Organization to provide an environment for consortia-like programs. "We needed to recapture some of the consortia people," says Judith Gorman, managing director of IEEE's standards activities. "The industry continues to form consortia," even though "companies are tired of the cost" of supporting consortia-type groups. Despite the pace of technology development, Gorman says half of all IEEE standards are now developed in two years or less.

The IEEE also launched a standards development Web site to support individuals and companies participating in the creation of standards at the IEEE. Also, in a move that could spin it in a whole new direction, the Institute is beginning to examine conformance assessment—certifying products that claim to comply with IEEE standards. If the IEEE takes on this new task, it presumably will compete with industry consortia such as the Wi-Fi Alliance, the lead industry 802.11 organization. "We're studying this now," says Gorman. "We're not prepared to discuss it yet."

In response to the speed of new wireless networking developments, the IEEE has formed the 802.18 Radio Regulatory Technical Advisory Group (802.18 RR-TAG). It will keep up to date with developments in radio regulations at the national and international levels. "IEEE standards are the best," says Howard Sachs, "de facto standards are the next best, and proprietary standards are awful. From the perspective of a guy trying to build an SoC, a proprietary standard makes it tough."

The EDA market may be the best example, he says, citing the OpenAccess Coalition and Synopsys, which recently agreed to link their data access interfaces. Prior to this development, Sachs says, "Imagine a small guy trying to fit some new tool into one of those flows getting access to the standard."

For practical purposes, it's unlikely that any of this will change soon. Technology simply moves too fast for the standards organizations to keep up. "It's like waiting for the green traffic light in the U.K., where the lights go from red to yellow, then green," Strauss says. "I find that if I wait for the green light, I'm the last one to leave the intersection. The same can be said of standards."

Need More Information?
Agere Systems
(800) 372-2447

Belkin Components
(310) 898-1100

Broadcom Corp.
(408) 543-3311

Buffalo Technology
(800) 508-1110

(949) 788-0805

Forward Concepts
(480) 968-3759

Frost & Sullivan
(210) 247-3870

GSM Association
44 207 518 0549

(970) 350-5948

732) 981-0060

International Biometrics Group
(888) IBG-8-IBG


Linksys Group
(800) 546-5797

(425) 882-8080

(215) 323-1880

Ovum Research
44 207551 9131

(415) 960-1630

(858) 587-1121


(650) 962-5000

Telairity Semiconductor
(408) 764-0270

Texas Instruments
(214) 480-7963

Virtual Socket Interface Alliance
(408) 356-8800

VoiceXML Forum
(732) 562-3802

Wi-Fi Alliance
(910) 686-0870

World Wide Web Consortium
About the Author

Ron Schneiderman

Ron Schneiderman served as the Chief Editor of Wireless Systems Design and Executive Editor of Microwaves & RF. He is also the author of seven books. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to The New York Times,Rolling Stone,and TV Guide.

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