Standards are great and there are so many to choose from! While this statement appears to ring true, closer inspection reveals very few standards reach ubiquity. Some are successful in one or two markets; for example, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard — a clever and long-lived technology which allows musical devices that make and control sound to communicate with each other— has remained dedicated to serving a narrow sector since it was first introduced in 1983.
In contrast, standards aiming for true ubiquity must aim for adoption in hundreds of millions (if not billions) of devices. Examples of wired- and wireless-communication standards that have achieved mass adoption include USB, Ethernet (actually, the twisted-pair-based successor to the original coax-based Ethernet), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technology. Cellular is another.
Strictly speaking, cellular communications are not governed by a single standard. But from a disjointed start comprising multiple analog implementations through the transitory situation of competing GSM and CDMA standards, we do now have a refined selection of global cellular standards. (Although non-harmonized global spectrum allocations mean engineers must still contend with multiple frequency bands.) GSM turned into EDGE which turned into 3G which morphed into 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE). And now 5G is the new hot technology.
Is 5G making 4G obsolete? No, because as the LTE name hints, there is a lot of “long term” evolution of 4G still to come. Wi-Fi has come a long way from its humble one-megabit-per-second IEEE 802.11-1997 beginnings to the current seven-gigabit-per-second 802.11ad manifestation. And Bluetooth technology has evolved from its early serial-port or wireless-headset focus to spawn the current Low Energy version. This version has cemented its status as the Internet of Things’ (IoT) lingua franca, allowing wireless sensors to communicate with smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, and the same is true of standards. What determines which standards succeed and which fail? Many factors come into play; technical merit, market timing, openness, industry participation, sometimes just luck. But building on an existing ecosystem is perhaps the key contributor to success.
It’s hard to both launch a standard and build a supporting ecosystem from scratch. Even a company with the resources of Intel was reportedly close to giving up on promoting USB before it finally got traction in peripherals after the firm ‘seeded’ the market by supporting the technology in PCs for several years.
Of the other successes, Wi-Fi built on the successful wired Ethernet standard to create “wireless Ethernet”. And Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) started out as the Nokia-sponsored Wibree before merging with the Bluetooth SIG to ensure interoperability with billions of smartphones.
NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE Cat-M1 (LTE-M)—the low power, low bandwidth modem specifications introduced in Release 13 of the 3GPP telecoms alliance’s LTE standard — build on the established cellular ecosystem. With an NB-IoT or LTE-M modem, just a base-station software upgrade enables a battery-powered device to connect to the Cloud from anywhere that has cellular coverage.
In addition to an established ecosystem, adoption of a standard relies on ease of use. Consumers are not generally engineers and demand that their technology “just works”. Many standards have failed because they’re too fiddly for the end-user.
Bluetooth LE is one example where configuration can be made simple. By using Near Field Communication (NFC) to automatically instigate pairing when a Bluetooth LE device and a smartphone are touched together, the technology has eliminated all complexity.
Cellular technology still has some way to go to match Bluetooth LE’s simplicity. Today’s physical SIM cards are a hassle and could stall the introduction of NB-IoT and LTE-M modems. But tomorrow’s eSIMs will automate the modem-commissioning process and make it simple to add a new device to the cellular network.
Such simplicity will multiply the new mobile specifications’ chances of making it as the next big things in wireless communications.