Last year I wrote an article for TechOnLine in which I suggested that for ultra-wideband (UWB) to have a successful ascent in the marketplace, we needed to pay attention to three hard-learned lessons from the recent history and herky-jerky starts of its nearest unlicensed spectrum cousins: Bluetooth and WiFi.
The first lesson is that a single standard is necessary to avoid market confusion. Lesson two is that UWB-enabled gadgets must have guaranteed interoperability and compatibility between all manufacturers' standard products, again to minimize market confusion. The third lesson is that ease of use
is paramount to quick adoption by consumers.
When I was invited again by TechOnLine to write on the subject, I decided to look back at the pontifications of 16 months ago to see whether they were still holding up. I still stand by my assertions (whew!), and think it's time to see how the UWB world is employing these lessons to date.
Tour De Standards
Sorting out the standards-development process for unlicensed wireless technology is akin to novice bicyclists making sense of the events of the Tour de France on the first day of the race. Too many stages, trials, strategies, crashes, and categories make predicting the winner early on impossible. However, by the time the Alps stages begin with Paris less than a week away, the yellow jersey winner is usually clear.
Lessons 1 and 2—Single Standard/Guaranteed Interoperability Between Products
If you have been following UWB in the press for the past 16 months, you probably have the impression that the single-standard vision is far from reality. You have heard that the MultiBand OFDM Alliance (MBOA) vs. Direct Sequence-UWB (DS-UWB) battle to win the coveted IEEE 802.15.3a standards moniker is hopelessly deadlocked, and the completion of a UWB standard is nowhere in sight. Maybe you've read about Wireless USB (W-USB), Wireless 1394, and WiMedia (all using UWB) and wonder how a single standard could possibly emerge from this potpourri of standards, organizations, and acronyms.
The easiest way to think about UWB now is simply in terms of the application, for example Wireless USB. Forget about everything under the hood. Nobody talks about 802.11a as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM) anymore, nor should they. The important thing is that 802.11a works, and products that use the technology—from a wide variety of manufacturers—all work together.
A complete industry standard, like a Tour de France victory, is not comprised of one single stage win, but it is a collection of completing and winning many stages. For a wireless standard to become truly successful, it requires that a tremendous number of components come together at the right time to create an entire ecosystem. The high-profile time trial stage—the IEEE—has gotten all the attention due to a dispute over whose physical layer (PHY) is best.
Let's make the assumption that both the MBOA and DS-UWB solutions are pretty good, and meet the requirements of the market. This is a fair assumption because so many supporters are behind each approach. The debate over which is best has gone on too long. Meanwhile, the MBOA, WiMedia Alliance, and W-USB have been quietly working together as a team to win stage after stage towards the final victory. The fact is that the leader's yellow jersey has been on the MBOA/WiMedia/W-USB team for most of the race now, and the lead going into Paris is insurmountable by any challengers. A single industry standard for UWB has been developed, and is here today. Complete specifications from MBOA and W-USB are slated for the end of this year—well ahead of the critics' predictions. The 1394 Trade Association has also recently engaged the UWB specifications of the MBOA and WiMedia, which further solidifies the MBOA/WiMedia stack as the de facto standard.
Though most of us recognize and agree on the value of the IEEE as a standards setting body, it is not a prerequisite for a successful and pervasive technology. As a case in point, USB shipped more than 400 million units last year, and it was developed outside the IEEE. Bluetooth was standardized outside the IEEE in the Bluetooth SIG and then later struck a bargain to bring the specification into the IEEE fold after it was finished. UWB will simply follow in its older cousin's footsteps.
Wireless USB as a standard and brand also has another distinct advantage over Bluetooth and 802.11 at the outset. USB, the wired version, is an already well established brand with 1.5 billion connections shipped globally to date. USB has begun to proliferate beyond PC and peripherals and is now penetrating mobile phones, set-top boxes, and digital camcorders. Adding the word "wireless" as a prefix to USB, for example, immediately establishes a basic understanding of its functionality with consumers. Bluetooth and 802.11 both struggled with identity problems for some time before there was a broad understanding of their functionality (and significant volume). Wireless USB will not face this challenge.
The DS-UWB PHY folks will be relegated to a lesser role, most likely in vertical markets with proprietary solutions. There is a great deal of interest in UWB from the emergency, medical, military, and industrial markets. Besides, there are a lot of cables to replace beyond USB and 1394. As a veteran Tour competitor, the DS-UWB team won't publicize this yet, but in private they all know the battle for the industry standard and the yellow jersey is over.
This can be both bad and good news for the DS-UWB team. On one hand, they aren't the industry standard. On the other, they have a solution worthy of filling some niche verticals. They might even enjoy some profit margin, which has proven a challenge for the standards-based products, as has been the case with Bluetooth and WiFi.
Lesson 3—Ease of Use
As hapened with Ethernet, its wireless counterpart—WiFi—is quickly becoming a standard feature on laptops. Similar to what happened with hands-free headset connectors, Bluetooth is becoming a standard feature on many mobile devices. Many of us have already learned to love and depend on these wireless technologies. It is interesting to note that probably half of the conversations among consumers about these technologies are dedicated to their daily experiences of trying to make connections using these devices. Everyone has a story to tell about the nightmare experience of setting up an access point at home, connecting at Starbucks, or connecting a Bluetooth headset to a mobile phone. That is, if they've bothered to turn on the feature at all.
Bluetooth shipped more than 70 million units in 2003 and is expected to more than double that number this year. WiFi products exceeded 30 million units in 2003 and, by most estimates, should top 70 million units in 2004. Since word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool, it would be interesting to see how much more successful these products could have been if consumers spent less time talking about their frustrations with the technology and more talking about how easy and great it is to use. Probably a big reason for the strong growth in both of those technologies is the vast improvement made in ease of installation over the last few years.
The developers of the Wireless USB standard have spent the past 18 months pondering that exact question and developing some amazingly simple connection models in hopes of avoiding the inherent complexities and bad reputation of Bluetooth and WiFi. Many of these people are veterans of the ease-of-use mistakes made in their older cousins and are determined to get it as close to perfect as possible this time. Some of the connection models under consideration and in development could be as simple as pushing a button or touching one device to another. At this point, it is safe to say that consumers' experience with connecting W-USB devices will be easy and intuitive.
So, despite the deadlock in the IEEE over the UWB PHY proposals from the MBOA and DS-UWB camps, the rest of the industry has moved ahead with the winning team of three who are already in Paris, on the Champs Elysees and riding towards the Arc d'Triumph. The lessons have been learned, a single standard has been decided, the mechanisms for ensuring interoperability are in place, and the means for ease-of-use are being developed as never before. UWB is well on its way to a retailer near you in its first form—Wireless USB. But there are a few critical stages left in the Tour de Standards.
Final Stages of the Tour
The final factors that will dictate the rate of success of Wireless USB in the market are the following in order of significance:
- It is critical that Microsoft commits to native Wireless USB driver support in "Longhorn" or a revision package at some point. The driver will almost certainly start out being sold as a disk but eventually Microsoft will be compelled to include it as has been done with Bluetooth and WiFi. The sooner the better for Wireless USB, and you should expect an announcement from Microsoft within the next 18 months. Microsoft is an active member of both MBOA and Wireless USB Promoter's Group. I also understand they have a keen interest in the gaming market and mobile markets, both of which would benefit handsomely from a 480 Mbps Wireless USB connection.
- Intel will need to make Wireless USB capability native to its PC platform hardware. As always with the PC, new I/O capability is eased in at first as dongles, add-in PC cards, and so on, before the eventual move to the motherboard and finally the chipset architecture for Wireless USB to become a standard feature on all PCs. Expect Intel to introduce Concept Platform PCs and reference designs next year that include Wireless USB capabilities. Intel is a member of MBOA, WiMedia, and Wireless USB Promoter's Group and is very actively driving all three groups.
- Harmonization of UWB regulation in major markets must occur. Right now, the U.S. is the only major market where UWB is officially approved. Korea is expected to follow shortly with Japan in 2005 with preliminary regulation. It is a bit messier in Europe, but progress is being made within the ITU and other regulatory bodies that are beginning to see UWB as a potential opportunity, rather than a threat. Germany has taken the lead on UWB in Europe for the moment and seems most likely to be the first to adopt regulation policy. All tolled, by the end of 2005, a majority of the world markets for PCs and peripherals will either have UWB regulation in place or be close.
Critical mass will be reached on all of these issues within the next 18 months. 2006 will see the introduction of a variety of PC, peripheral, consumer electronics and home entertainment devices all enabled by Wireless USB with UWB as the radio channel. Let's revisit this in 18 months and check the clarity of my crystal ball.
About the Author
is a founder and VP of Business Development and Marketing for Staccato Communications. Staccato is a member of the Wireless USB Key Contributors Group, the MBOA, WiMedia, and the 1394 Trade Association Board of Directors. Mark is active in UWB standards-setting bodies and is a voting member of 802.15.3a, a founding member of 802.15.4a, founding member of the Multiband Coalition and the MBOA, and chair of the MBOA Marketing committee. He has more than 15 years in the semiconductor industry and most recently was co-founder, president, COO and director of BOPS, Inc., a broadband DSP cores and tools company. Prior to BOPS, he was instrumental in forming and funding a number of successful start-ups including Power Computing (sold to Apple in 1996 for $100M); Panorama Designs (sold to Motorola in 1996 for $4.25M); and BlueSteel Networks (sold to Broadcom in 2000 for $110M). Mark holds an undergraduate engineering degree from Texas A&M and a master's degree in technology management from Pepperdine University.
For more information on UWB, visit Staccato Communications' Web site