UWB Standards MADness

Lately I've been writing quite a bit about "standards wars," frequently using the wireless space as an apt example of behavior that sometimes smacks of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategies of the Cold War.  A few days ago, the example got even apter with the announcement by Motorola spinoff and silicon vendor Freescale that it was splintering off of the splinter group that it had splintered off of the IEEE working group that then failed to set a UWB standard.  Got that?  If not, don't worry - it doesn't really make much sense anyway.

The underlying facts are as follows: one of the many wireless working groups within the IEEE was trying to develop a high speed, short range, low frequency standard to cut down on domestic cable clutter that otherwise collects around products such as your PC.  As with many other standards, the differences between alternative ways of solving that problem make a lot of difference to vendors, but not much to consumers, who just want things to work when they come home and plug them in.

But this is the wonderful world of wireless, where little happens easily these days.  And in this case, things are working even worse than usual.

The working group received 25 different proposals, and successfully narrowed then down to two – and that’s where things bogged down back in 2004.  One camp (backed by Intel)  formed the WiMedia Alliance to support its favorite flavor, while Freescale hoisted a flag for its proposal, and gathered its allies into the UWB Forum.  Since neither side budged, the 75% vote required under IEEE’s consensus-demanding rules could not be garnered.  In January, the two warring parties announced victory (for them) in defeat (for the standards process) and announced that they “would let the market decide” which products it wished to buy (the market, of course, has a variety of other things on its collective mind,  and presumably would rather not be bothered).  Oh – and did I mention that the two standards aren’t compatible (natch).

At this point, we had a classic standards war of the needless variety (from the consumer point of view), rather than what I would call a standards competition (i.e., a situation where two standards have sufficiently real differences that there is a reason to test them in the marketplace, and an advantage to be gained by letting the process play out).

But then things progressed one step further.  As Peter Judge elegantly put it, in an article at Techworld called Freescale flounces out of own UWB club:

Silicon maker Freescale, having lost every single competition for the nascent super-fast ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, has left the only club that would still have it – the UWB Forum, which it set up itself.

Apparently, having failed to sway it’s peers in its own forum, Freescale hopes that it may gain market share by introducing its own uncertified products in advance of those of either its former compadres in the UWM Forum, or its competitors in the WiMedia Alliance.

Former parent Motorola also withdrew from the UWB Forum along with its unruly youngster, but so far the remaining members of the UWB Forum say that they will soldier on.  However, the WiMedia Alliance scored a recent victory that will also weaken the Forum: the Bluetooth SIG announced in March that it would support the WiMedia Alliance specification – and not the UWB Forum’s technology.  With 500 million Bluetooth enabled devices already in the field and a pledge of the two organizations to work together to guarantee backward compatibility, this is not, as the experts say, chopped liver.

So there we are, with a once-productive standards effort within IEEE progressively disintegrating into specification chaos, to no one’s ultimate advantage, and perhaps least likely to Freescale’s.

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