How Technical Decisions Get Made By Standards Bodies

Apr 03
Eric Kaplan

Eric Kaplan

Eric Kaplan Bio

So How Do Those Important Technical Decisions Get Made By Standards Bodies?

Politically, of course. Right now there is a big battle going in the Continua Health Alliance over which low power wireless technology to standardize on. I’ll have plenty to say about that soon, but thought it would be interesting to look at somewhat recent history to give you a sense of how the high tech world works.

A few years ago the IEEE was trying to create a standard for Ultra-Wideband (UWB) for high-speed wireless data communication. There were three reasonable options under discussion. Intel and its friends were pushing for an OFDM-based (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) approach, Freescale and its friends favored DS (Direct Sequence) technology, and the third approach (I don’t remember what it was) was championed by a small start-up. Not knowing anything about UWB, I did my own independent research. In addition to doing some reading, I attended a UWB seminar where advocates from all three factions made good arguments for their respective approaches. I asked the CTO of a leading wireless company what he thought and he not only gave me his opinion, but he also arranged for me to spend an hour or so with one of his company’s top RF engineers and I got to ask all the questions I wanted of someone who had spent a lot of time studying both the OFDM and DS approaches. My conclusion was that while all three approaches had merit, if only one had to be chosen, it should probably have been DS.

What I later figured out was that I had wasted my time doing a technical evaluation. The small start-up never had a chance because the decision wasn’t about technology, it was about who could use political pressure to get enough votes. In the end, the IEEE didn’t choose a standard. The fighting between the Intel-led group and Freescale-led group went on for so long (well more than a year) and was so intense that the IEEE concluded that there was a deadlock that could not be resolved. The IEEE decided to give up and “let the market decide”.

The market decided that there was less risk in going against what Intel wanted than what Freescale wanted and this is how OFDM UWB became the industry standard.

Eric Kaplan

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One Response to “How Technical Decisions Get Made By Standards Bodies”

    Michael Hatton says:

    This sounds like a good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy in action.

    What Intel wanted was going to win anyway so there is no risk in picking it; which is why it won.

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