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Time to Think Hard About Interoperability

Tue, 01/20/2004 - 8:04am

Ern Worthman, Technology and Editorial Director

This isn't news to my regular readers, but just in case you're tuning in for the first few times, I'm a technofreak! I'm the kind of guy whose addiction is technology. I just had to add an electronic hop-up module to modify my fuel/RPM/timing brainbox on my motorcycle (105 horsepower at the rear wheels isn't enough?).

I've got four computers, none of which has less that a GB of RAM or less than 2.5 GHz of processing power. I use wireless broadband routers, Wi-Fi at Bigbucks, wireless security cameras at home and GPS in my car. I use wireless temperature sensors, wireless alarms and wireless remote controls. I have digital cameras and 3G radios with integrated Internet, cameras and Wi-Fi. I have 7.1 super-surround killer audio and 16:9 HDTV. If it's bleeding edge, I gotta have it.

So, with all this technology, gadgets and gizmos you'd think all I have to do is push a few buttons (or better yet, issue voice commands) and everything happens. Truth is, all this technology takes a lot of memory (gray matter, that is) to keep it all sorted. I constantly have to remember what control does what, where to set my gadgets to get the results I want and what protocol I need to make something connect to something else. My 4:3 TV can't see 16:9 digital signals and I only get a dozen or so HDTV channels that look good on the 16:9 set. So I have to switch my cable box settings back and forth, depending upon which set I want to watch. One particular computer won't "see" one of the others unless I unload the "beta" WiFi driver and use the Microsoft driver and my mobile Wi-Fi is finicky from location to location.

What got me off on this rant is the renewed interest in ZigBee, another iteration in the 802.xx (1.5 in this case) unlicensed wireless spectrum.. Zigbee is a low data rate, two-way standard for home automation and data networks. Oh boy, another wireless interconnect layer to add to the already mucky waters of wireless interconnect protocols.

ZigBee isn't that new. It's been under development for several years now, but, like Bluetooth, lost a lot of momentum since the wireless industry doldrums hit. Now, it seems that ZigBee is trying to make a bit of resurgence. Personally, I'm not convinced that we need another wireless interconnect standard. Is there something that ZigBee can do that Bluetooth (BT), or now BT light can't?

If we're going to develop another unlicensed wireless protocol, I'd like to see something like ... maybe "WiFree." But instead of having it's own proprietary protocol, it would be a universal translator. It would contain interfaces for BT (and BT light), WiFi, WiMax, ZigBee, FRS as well cellular and IR, IV, IB and IX, IY and IZ (sorry, got carried away).

WiFree would be able to take wireless signals from any protocol and convert it to any other protocol. So I could sit at my computer and tell the TV to go into 16:9 mode and the WiFi signal would be translated into IR and poof! My TV is now controllable from my computer. I could control my computer from my cell phone as well. I could program my WiFi-enabled computer to tell my BT-enabled microwave to start cooking the popcorn, feed my fish from the ZigBee-enabled automatic feeder, set the IR-enabled TV to the movie channel and have the BT or Zigbee-enabled home heat and lights set when I hit the door — all from my wireless phone (which calls my computer, which talks to the WiFree).

However, looking back, I seem to recall that each and every one of these protocols promised to do exactly what WiFree should do. I remember Bluetooth promoting smart home appliances — your coffee is ready sir, and your dinner will be promptly. Oh by the way, did you know you're almost out of butter pecan ice cream? And all of this on your mobile communicator as you drive home.

Then WiFi promised to interconnect computers, communicators, buildings, campuses and the like. OK, WiFI is doing that but now we're finding that its network access scheme (CSMA/CA if memory serves me correctly) isn't suitable for heavy loading. So we're developing WiMax.

So, what really does ZigBee have to offer? Low rate data streams. Is that something we really need? Can't we accomplish the same thing with a BT module? Why add another incompatible wireless protocol to an already Brundlfly'd arena? We need universal interoperability!

I've always been an advocate of interoperability. Somewhere along the line we would be much better served if GSM talked to PCS. WiFi to BT, ZigBee to WiMax and vise versa.

I have also been an advocate of limited regulation. Some things deserve to be a monopoly (with adequate safeguards, of course) Spectrum should be one of them. I believe that now, since we have so many bleeding edge high-tech wireless devices that are all over the frequency spectrum and protocol map, it is time to mandate interoperability, especially in the unlicensed spectrum. And that spectrum usage and interoperability falls, cooperatively, on those that want to provide products and services.

It can only benefit us because once interoperability is resolved, the vertical markets have a solid platform, the end user knows it will work, ubiquitously, and the industry can concentrate on features and functionality. This opposed to wringing their hands trying to guess which platform will dominate and spreading resources across multiple platforms. We would be a lot further up the feature/function curve if we had some sort of universal wireless communications protocol. Let's try it. It just might work.

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