I’m in a couple different discussions today that are calling “standards” into deep question as shifting markets dictate new approaches. Engineers can write a solid specification, and even have it vetted by a “standards organization”, but ultimately the life cycle of a standard is determined by factors not written down anywhere.
For instance, one conversation is over the proliferation of mobile devices and what some (including me) have called the spectrum deficit problem. CTIA is loudly pounding the drum for more spectrum – specifically LTE spectrum – as a solution, and they’re getting panned in some circles. Nonetheless, there is a problem. This came from a panel at Digital Capital Week:
To which one of my Tweeps responded “foolishness that they are allowed to do that”. I asked him to clarify, and here’s his response.
I understand the idea behind what people are now calling “small cells”. In short, small cells can technologically work in dense urban areas, subdividing users into a better ratio of users to cells. The “15 users can swamp a tower” idea is worst case, but you can have thousands of subscribers computing to reuse the same tower in a dense urban setting. Setting up small cells, if they’re located where the subscribers are active, can relieve some of the problem.
Wi-Fi offload also works, taking some of the high-bandwidth data traffic off the LTE network. It’s an ironic twist that the same carriers who fought Wi-Fi offload tooth-and-nail a few years ago are now looking to it for survival. But, there’s one nagging question still lurking.
The questions arise over business models. Ask yourself: do I pay for roaming Wi-Fi? I’ll bet the answer is rarely unless you are trapped in a plane or airport. I have heard a hundred conversations at hotels about taking charges for Wi-Fi off the bill. Somehow, Wi-Fi should be free, and that’s wonderful, but who pays for the infrastructure?
Similarly, who sets up the small cells? Large towers are set up on a carrier’s backhaul network, often with a large fiber optic connection to their backbone. Small cells can be set up in a building. Who’s Internet connection do they use? Likely a cable or phone company.
It’s getting much harder to determine who has the wireless connection, who gets the money from the payer, and who funds the infrastructure. That equation can stop the problem from being solved in the “right” way – a technologically more efficient way – and promote it being solved in the “wrong” way. Meanwhile, consumers don’t really care as long as they get what they thought they paid for.
Similar issue arising around Adobe Flash and HTML5. Pundits are railing that “Apple killed Adobe Flash on mobile.” While the Steve Jobs worship continues and the technical purists argue the superior approach, I’ll say this: a big part of the decision was Apple not being beholden to the Adobe licensing structure, looking for a more open solution.
Yes, HTML5 is great, and is a boon for cross platform developers who don’t want to worry. It runs on pretty much everything. There’s just one wrinkle – there’s a huge amount of support and content built on Adobe Flash.
The entire mobile Flash development community just got put in a position where they will have difficulty making money going forward. You can see one reaction to this already – Research in Motion is a source code licensee for Adobe Flash and says they’re continuing development on mobile. One blogger called them “necrofiles”, but it’s a developer community decision to not disenfranchise a group of people with content.
And again, consumers don’t care until their content is affected:
But if you wipe out developers and prevent most from making money, bad things happen. HTML5 will be great once folks figure out how to monetize it. After all, it took Adobe Flash quite a while to become the standard for video content.
When engineers develop a specification, they’re solving a technological problem. If they are fortunate to be operating in an area with no solution or weak solutions, and unify the support behind an idea which becomes a standard, that standard can get traction. But when several standards emerge in the same space, and force choices and monetary expenditures to be made, control goes from the “better” technical solution to the “better” business solution – which usually equates to who is better incented to develop products and infrastructure.