And Then There Were Three

What don't you need when you have two rival groups, each pushing their own standard within the IEEE 801.11n working group? A third, formed outside the IEEE, that says "take our proposal instead, or we'll go it alone."

How much is the 802.11 family of IEEE standards worth? Well, let’s assume that it’s conservatively worth many billions of dollars in chips, routers, and services. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, tell a vendor that it may miss out on that type of money and it focuses the mind wonderfully. It can also lead it to adopt impressively hardball standards strategies as well.


Thus it is that we learned this last week that a long building log jam in the IEEE working group that is developing the 100 Mbit/sec+ WLAN standard had broken. But not through a compromise between WWiSE and TGn Sync, the two rival groups that have been facing off for months, although companies like Broadcom had forecast just such a resolution as recently as October 3. Instead, there was an announcement only a few days later of a new group of two dozen companies (including guess who — Broadcom) called the Enhanced Wireless Consortium. The new group includes many other heavyweights, such as Cisco, Intel, and Aptheros, but pointedly excludes Airgo Networks, Inc., a leading chip vendor.


True, IEEE is a tough organization to get a standard out of: a 75% vote of the working group is needed to support the winning proposal. In this case, neither of the lead groups (or a third proposal, championed by Motorola) succeeded in carrying the day. The next step was to be the creation of a joint proposal by representatives of both contenders, that both would agree to support. Instead, a group of IEEE members that tend towards the PC and silicon end of the membership launched the EWC initiative instead. Predictably, each side has uncomplimentary things to say about the other’s motives and specification.


Ideally, this pursuit of standards by other means will result in a finally adopted 802.11n standards, to be maintained by the IEEE. But according to an article in TechWorld, some EWC members are indicating that they will promote their specification whether the IEEE adopts it or not.


The story seems significant to me for two reasons that transcend the question of how soon you or I will be able to enjoy reliable, certified WLAN services, and whether my next laptop supports two standards rather than just one. The first reason is that this type of behavior is becoming more common. Think, for example, of the formation of a patent pool within EPCGlobal (but excluding IPR heavyweight Intermec Technologies), which is interested in reaping royalties from its own patents, or the multi-year fight to the death between the Blu-ray Group and the HD-DVD camp over the next generation DVD video format, or the ongoing RFID dispute between China and the rest of the world in the same standards area. None of this augers well for the rapid development and adoption of quality standards.


The second reason I find this behavior disquieting is because standards are all about consensus. If people decide to opt out of well-respected standard processes such as those conducted by the IEEE when the going gets tough, then all hell can break lose. There’s always enough unavoidable chaos (some of it creative)to go around in emerging areas (think wireless before Wi-Fi bested such contenders as Home RF, and divided the landscape with Bluetooth, or recall the multiplicity of groups that sprang up in the mobile space, to coalesce eventually into OMA — the Open Mobile Alliance).


No, when companies (or nations) decide to drop out of the consensus (or United Nations) process, then uncertainly and tensions build, and the ground gained through years of painstaking credibility building can be rapidly lost. In fact, these two examples are converging right now, as the United States seeks to defend it’s suzerainty over the Internet root directory from challenge in the WSIS process.


Where will this adventure in 802.11 land end up? Hopefully, with a grand compromise that brings the two-dozen companies, and their new, just announced specification, back into the IEEE, and not to a permanent split between an 801.11 working group standard and a rival specification promoted and maintained by EWC.


But who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see. Because a consensus process is based on, well, consensus. And if those involved can’t agree, then it’s two steps forward, but three steps back.


Unfortunately, that’s a lot more likely to happen when you’ve got three groups all working in their own self-interest, rather than one group working to provide the best solution to end users.


Like you and me.


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Added October 18: “Atheros Communications and Marvell Technology reportedly will begin volume production of their respective WLAN chips compliant with the Enhanced Wireless Consortium’s (EWC) proposed 802.11n standard in the first quarter of next year, according to sources at Taiwan WLAN device makers.”