Open Standards

For reasons that will become apparent I'm starting our discussion on Weightless technology by talking about a completely different one, Bluetooth. Today it's ubiquitous - there are more than 3 billion Bluetooth devices across the world and 25000 Bluetooth SIG members. Well that's just tremendous. So what?

The Dawn of a Standard

Back in the mid-nineties Intel had the early prototypes of a proprietary technology it called Business-RF. Nokia had something similar it called Low Power RF and Ericsson, widely acknowledged as the leading originator of Bluetooth technology, had something called MC-Link. Wow - that's some snappy nomenclature right there - these tech companies know how to dress up a brand don't they. I actually remember seeing some early MC-Link prototypes in a glass cabinet at an Ericsson office in Kista near Stockholm in Sweden back in the mid-nineties. "Nice idea" I said to nobody in particular at the time, "but it'll never work". A year or two later these three proprietary technologies coalesced and in 1998  a fledgling Bluetooth industry took its first faltering steps into the bright light of commerce. Little did I know that I would shortly be spending ten years of my life in the industry as Bluetooth went from strength to strength. But why was I so skeptical?

Proprietary doesn't work

Intel, Nokia and Ericsson - these are companies with great depth in their engineering resources, relevant experience and impressive talent pools - if any company could pull this off it might be one of these. But nobody, not one credible analyst, journalist or industry commentator, would have forecasted that a single company could launch a proprietary wireless technology that would appear in three billion products in 17 short years. And they would have had history on their side - never, not once, has a proprietary wireless technology prevailed. If you think I've overlooked one then please do head on over to the Weightless LinkedIn Group and set the record straight in the comments.

Standards Dominate the IoT Connectivity Landscape

In another blog we're going to be looking at the wireless connectivity technology landscape for the Internet of Things. And it will quickly become apparent that open standards dominate the space. Briefly we have GPRS, 3G and emerging LTE derivatives at one end and Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Zigbee at the other. And then we have a rapidly emerging middle way widely known as low power, wide area network technology or LPWAN. In this space, quickly gaining a reputation as the optimum technology approach for IoT/M2M, there are two commercial options for adopters - proprietary and open standard. Several companies with broadly similar technology propositions, narrow band technologies in licence exempt sub-1GHz spectrum, are offering a connectivity solution and, realistically, there is little to differentiate them. In the open standard corner we have Weightless and member company, NWave Technologies. Weightless-N, the Standard published in April 2015, is technically similar to the proprietary alternatives and indeed, the Weightless SIG does not attempt to show any significant technical differences. But commercially it is a very different story.

When is a Standard not a Standard?

It's a tricky old world we live in. There are marketing departments in companies on both sides of the Atlantic busy with their copywriters. They're investing time and money attempting to convince adopters that their proprietary technologies are open standards. They are not. No, not at all. The open standards that the Weightless SIG defines are explicitly different. But it surely can't be that difficult to understand this can it?

 Well, type "open standard" into your favourite search engine and you'll quickly realise that this is a vague and ambiguous term. Make yourself a large mug of coffee and wade into a forest of complex definitions - the truth is out there if you have the time and inclination to tease it out from the text. Or you can refer instead to these simple guidelines.

Not a Pretend Standard

The Digital Standards Organization (DIGISTAN) states that "an open standard must be aimed at creating unrestricted competition between vendors and unrestricted choice for users." Ask yourself how a technology that requires adopters to buy silicon from a single vendor is "unrestricted choice". When adopters are required to connect to a network provisioned by a single vendor, how does this create "unrestricted competition"? When the technology provider dictates which companies provide the base stations in a network, how can an adopter be certain that he is being offered a competitive solution? An open source endpoint is not the marker that defines an open standard.

 Weightless technology is open standard in the true, strict and proper sense of the term. It means that all adopters have fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access to royalty free technology. Exactly like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and LTE.

 What about an "Alliance" then? Is this not some kind of standard? No. It isn't. It's no more or less than a group of companies that have elected to lend their brand equity to a particular technology. How about a promise to work with a standards organisation like the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, ETSI - does that count? No. It doesn't. A company can promise to commit effort towards the development of a standard which it might or might not continue to honour. The company could be acquired before a standard is ever published. The standard might never reach version 1.0. The company may simply withdraw its commitment to the development work. And best case, the Low Throughout Network (LTN) project currently consists of an outline framework for the high level architecture of a network. It's a long way from being even close to a standard. Make no mistake - proprietary technology vendors are well aware of the power of the open standard model which is why they attempt to create the impression that they support it. But there is only one organisation offering a true open standard model for wireless connectivity in LPWAN and it is the Weightless SIG.

Does it matter?

Yes it does, it absolutely does. Open standards promote competition and this drives down costs whilst stimulating innovation. They mitigate risk and maintain a level playing field. It's for these reasons that historically we know that proprietary models are always ultimately unsustainable.

Debate this

In a future blog we'll look at the Weightless Terminal Licence Agreement and explain what non-assert means as we explore FRAND and FRAND-Z models. I promise it's more interesting than it sounds (your mileage may vary).


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