Our discussions at CES with participants in powerline networking, UWB and MIMO [see the following article] got us thinking about the right time for standards. In each of these areas, we met people with very different views. Broadly speaking, they fell into two camps:
There's a lot to be said for both positions. Standards have become the way of life in the IT business; people have forgotten the old days when Ma Bell and IBM ruled the world and set all the standards internally. The huge success of wireless networking is a result of years of collaborative efforts through the IEEE 802.11 Working Group and the Wi-Fi Alliance. The equally huge success of broadband access--both cable modems and DSL--is the result of collaborative efforts between service providers, semiconductor companies and equipment vendors to establish common global standards.
But there are arguments on the other side:
Today we're seeing smaller companies moving ahead of existing standards efforts, trying to get products to market before standards are set in stone and incumbent semiconductor companies can take advantage of their market leverage:
In our discussions at CES, many people complained that DS2, Freescale and Airgo weren't playing the game by the well-known rules. One we respect said that if DS2 were located in Silicon Valley (rather than Valencia, Spain), they'd do things differently. All the MBOA members are upset with Freescale and Motorola for continuing to fight for DS-UWB in 802.15.3a rather than giving in to the majority view with good grace.
We're strong believers in these next-generation networking technologies--we've written about them in this newsletter over the past five years. And we're strong believers in standards. Most successful products reach mass-market volumes only after standards are established and accepted. Consumers are less confused by conflicting technology claims, and individual products work well together. Competition for market share is based on added features, pricing and packaging--not the underlying technology. Many remember how wireless home networking failed to take off while the "Home RF" and "802.11" camps fought for market share: consumers sat on their hands-and products sat on the shelves-until "Wi-Fi" won the battle.
After talking with many players on both sides at CES, we've come to see the current situation a little differently. DS2, Freescale and Airgo have come to market early with products that aren't standards based. It's certainly true that they are trying to gain an edge on their (mostly larger) competitors: they all saw what Broadcom did with "54g" and they're trying to emulate it.
To us, the key question is the proper timing for standards. Working out the specifications for next-generation chips that power consumer products is pretty tricky. Having lots of smart engineers meeting together in committee rooms every few months is not the only way to work out what should be in these specifications--it's far from clear that it's the best way when nobody has had any experience with the advanced applications these chips enable.
We think there's a strong counter-argument for getting a sense first for what consumer markets really want and need. The best way to learn about new applications is to get chips into real products and get the products into real user's hands. Then--and only then--will the chip and product companies really know what should be in the chips--and can establish standards based on that understanding.
Chip companies can't bring products to market directly. They depend on other companies to create products to sell to end users: consumers and (in the case of DS2) power companies. These products--like many of those we saw at CES--represent innovative applications, many never before been used in consumer homes. Some may succeed; some may fail.
Interoperability is important. Networking products especially need to interoperate with each other.
But there's a right time for standards, and now may be too early for some of these.
We're cheering for the companies that dare to come to market early and take the risk of subjecting their chips to the acid test in consumer homes. We hope everybody will have the opportunity to learn from their experience.