Are Standards Obsolete?

Carl Weinschenk

Sometimes people spend too much time fighting old battles and meeting old challenges and not enough thinking about what lies ahead. That's human nature: What's in the past, as unpleasant as it may be, has the advantage of being known.

This doesn't seem to have much to do with convergence or IT until one begins thinking about the 802.11n standards process. The new protocol will add speed, and therefore convergence capabilities, to the flavors of Wi-Fi that already are available. 802.11n is wrapped up in a standards setting process as endless as The English Patient. Well, almost.

In the past, it was assumed that a standard was necessary, and we're not bold enough to suggest that that has changed. But perhaps standards simply aren't as important as they were before people were so accustomed to integrating new technology.

A Techworld article about pre-standard 802.11n "Draft N" products makes the case that the industry -- starting from the small office/home office (SOHO) and small business sector -- is finding ways to bring to market myriad products encompassing what certainly will be the main elements of a final standard. Vendors are doing so in a way that will not strand their investments once the standard is fully baked. There's even cross-vendor interoperability, one of the great promises of standards-based products.

Standards are vital, since they set the bottom-line specifications arbitrating between a thousand highly technical, complex and vital issues. It's possible, however, to go a long way without them. In this new world, it may be that the standard can afford to arrive on the scene after the products begin rolling out. Vendors of 802.11n gear say that their products will follow an eventual standard. What may be more subtle, however, is the reality that the eventual standard will be influenced by the batch of products arriving in parallel to the standards development.

The future may be different than the past. The line between non-standard and standard gear may be a bit more porous and end users' decisions about whether or not to buy standards-based or proprietary gear a bit more open.

The market may have decided that it no longer makes sense to patiently wait for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the International Telecommunication Union or other bodies to sign off on a standard before enjoying a new technology's benefits.

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