Keeping Pace with the Evolution of Standards

June 24, 2019 Nicholas Cravotta

Developers of IoT devices have to deal with more than just communication protocols. There are security standards, frameworks, and apps they have to coordinate with as well. There are also industry specifications and regulations that have to be met, including aerospace, industrial, automotive, and medical.

The truth is that most companies have a lean development team and can’t afford to dedicate the resources to join even a single standards body.

The Standards Challenge

One of the challenges standards bodies face is balancing the cost of managing a standard with access to the standard. In simple terms, there are two tiers of companies: those who want to use a standard once it has been developed (industry users) and those willing to invest in developing it (members of the standards body).

Tension arises from the fact that the members who put effort into creating a spec need some way to make it worth their while. Certainly, members have input as to how to drive the spec forward, potentially giving them a technological advantage based on their existing expertise and portfolio. But perhaps more importantly, members have early access to the standard, giving them a substantial time-to-market edge.

This is certainly the case with Zigbee 3.1. From the recent “All Hubs Initiative” release, “A number of smart home systems will add these features to their platform certification requirements ahead of the ratification of the full 3.1 feature set to more immediately take advantage of these enhancements.”

So if your company isn’t a Zigbee Alliance member, you’ve already fallen behind.

Keeping Pace

This isn’t just the case for Zigbee. As the pace of innovation increases, it impacts all standards and protocols across all industries. And this impact is most significant around the Internet of Things. Consider that used to be the case if you were building a medical device, the final product had to comply with – admittedly strict – regulations. But the interconnection of IoT directly involves standards from across multiple disciplines. Now you have to meet standards for communications, wireless, security, cloud, databases, and on and on.

The question is, how can you take best advantage of evolving standards without making a significant investment in all of the standards your products use?

Develop partnerships: Work with companies and organizations that are major standards members so you can leverage their early access to information. Find partners who are also willing to do some or most of the work of implementing AND MAINTAINING the standard for you. For example, many development tool vendors are simplifying product design with drag-and-drop design environments that generate standards-compliant code. When the standard changes, the tools will implement these changes for you. You’ll also need access to test tools so you can verify compliance as you design.

Pick the right partners: You have to count on your partners to show up for you. Let them know what you need and hold them accountable. If they are late to market, you will be too. Be prepared to invest time and money in seriously assessing your different options; you need a long-term relationship that’s going to work for your company.

Time-to-market matters: The FDA requires OEMs to patch certain devices that have been compromised within 60 days. If your partner takes 60 days to implement the change, that gives you no time to integrate these changes into your code. Or recertify your design, if necessary. Or update a million in-field devices.

Consider carefully before implementing new or less-used features: There is a cost to being on the bleeding edge of technology. It takes investment and acceptance of risk to develop products using the latest versions of protocols.

According to Chris LaPré, Zigbee Alliance’s Solutions Architect, first and foremost your product needs to delight users. It needs to work so seamlessly it blends into the background. It just fits into your life. And when it does this, users will tell others, and the product will sell itself.

It’s a compelling way to approach design: put ease of use even ahead of having an amazing idea. Consider: What’s the value of a great feature if users can’t figure out how to use it? Or its corollary: What’s the value of a great feature users never use?

The Future of Standards

The All Hubs Initiative announcement is an interesting one. With it, the Zigbee Alliance is working toward bringing disparate ecosystems together. Consider the many different use cases associated with Zigbee. By defining common elements, the Alliance can consolidate change rather than have it get out of control. This will lead to more straightforward interoperability and a wider range of products that can actually work together. (Note that working together is very different from coexisting peacefully in the same environment.)

Tobin Richardson, Zigbee Alliance President and CEO says, “Zigbee has recognized the need to change its DNA so it can match the changing pace of innovation.”

These changes aren’t going to be trivial. There will still be tension between large member companies that invest a great deal in developing the standards and the plethora of start-ups that want to replace them. The answers haven’t been all worked out yet. But we do know this:

  • Standards bodies that don’t adapt will seriously limit the pace at which their members can bring innovation to market.
  • Members providing silicon, tools, and platforms will need to do more of the heavy lifting for OEMs. Like nearly all of it.
  • OEMs need to speak up through their partners and support them with their dollars faster.

Because the faster things change, the faster you can be left behind.

About the Author

Nicholas Cravotta

Nicholas Cravotta is a long-time veteran of the embedded industry, cutting his teeth on the 8080 designing CNC machines using assembly. With Insider: Embedded Software, Cravotta explores the ever-changing world of embedded software by calling upon experts in the industry to share their knowledge and experience. Each column offers insight into the embedded software development process to help you avoid time-consuming mistakes and get the most out of your embedded systems.

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