Friday, December 20, 2013

On Government Involvement with Hardware Standards

I asked Phil (@civissmith, +Phil Smith ) if I could repost his email on my blog, I thought it was a very coherent argument to the Government getting involved and forcing manufacturers to follow certain standards (Read: USB Plug on Phones). Enjoy! If you have anything to say about it, I(we) would love to hear!

In regards to our conversation yesterday about the EU and whether micro-USB is required in new devices:
The latest news I could find about the subject is that, at this point, it is still only a working consortium. The EU parliament has made a proposition to start working towards formalizing a law, but as of 26-Sep-13, there does not seem to be anything official [1].

As it stands, manufacturers in the EU have voluntarily agreed to work towards a common goal but there is no legal requirement. Even without formal legislation, Apple is apparently accommodating the EU market by releasing a micro-USB to Lightning port adapter [2]. This sets up a very interesting situation. On the one hand, an engineering team has designed and implemented a product and on the other, a non-technical governing body is pushing towards making a different, licensed technology a standard. I believe this is a very dangerous situation - the government is about to start driving design.

Let's take this out of the context of Apple vs. "the world", mostly because Apple is not the only manufacturer to create their own charging system. This is the cable used to charge my Toshiba Excite tablet [3]. Instead let's look at the underlying question, should a government body even be considering this legislation? If governments become involved at this level, I fear that technology will ultimately be hampered because the people constraining the design would be unfamiliar with how to create new technology - in some cases, they may not even be familiar with current technologies.

The prima facie appeal of the law is that it will reduce consumer waste and enhance ease-of-use. While, I agree that these ends are admirable, let's examine the means. A company is designing new "radio equipment device" to compete with the latest generation. During the design phase, this legislation would require the company to use USB as their power connector. This means the company must pay somewhere between US $1,750 US $4,000 per year just to carry the USB logo [4]. If the device is designed to have any media playback capability through a cabled interface, then the company must design a second interface. The device that could have had it's own hardware interface designed to do all in one must now ship with two cables - one USB and one proprietary. This scenario would be asking for consumer waste. Let's assume that the company doesn't want to run the risk of designing a second, proprietary interface. The media playback would then most likely have to be the de facto media standard, HDMI. To implement the HDMI solution will cost the company US $10,000 annually plus a per-unit royalty fee [5]. The saddest part of this scenario is that a device that could have done all of this in one cable must now use two. It's inter-operable, but is that easier to use?

This legislation will also only push the waste from the consumer level up to the manufacturer level. Nothing in consumer electronics is made-to-order which means that HDMI cables and USB cables will still be produced at a certain capacity until trend data suggests that manufacturing should slow down. The end result is still thousands or millions of surplus cables. The only real difference is that the cables never made it to consumers to be thrown away, instead they were thrown out by the manufacturers when a newer interface came along and the antiquated equipment was no longer needed. But speaking of newer interfaces, what does the legislation do to technology growth?

The current USB 2.0 specification only allows for a maximum data transfer rate of 480 Mbs [6]. As technologies get faster and data storage gets cheaper, it's a logical conclusion that 480 Mbs will eventually be too slow to be usable by the average consumer - look at what happened to the 14.4 kbps modem when 56 kbps modems came out. And, in turn, look what happened to the 56 kbps modem when DSL and cable technology became consumer-grade. Granted, these technologies took years to trickle from R&D to commercial to consumer, but artificial standards would have only slowed things down. Lets imagine what would have happened if "to put an end to cable chaos" for consumer desktop computer users, the EU had standardized the network interface card. The de facto standard in 1995, as I'm sure you remember, would have been the RJ-45 connector. The question that I would have to ask is how long would the additional legislation have taken to bring down the RJ-45 standard and replace it with RJ-11 so that consumers could start making the transition from dial-up modems to high-speed Internet? We see it in our legal system now where laws promote lobbyists and large lobbies have a lot of swing. When you have a consortium of companies that all make RJ-45 connectors and chips that talk dial-up - would RJ-11 have ever made the transition? In that 1995, the companies touting the benefits of higher speed through RJ-11 and Cat5 would have to not only overcome consumer skeptic, but also legal dead weight - neither of which is an easy obstacle to overcome. Worse yet, the RJ-45 consortium would only need to convince the legislators that the transition is bad - then the consumers would have never even seen the new technology. Additionally, when the hardware connector for USB 2.0 becomes too obsolete to allow faster data transfers, what happens with the legislation? How long will it be before new technology can start to compete? Will it even be worth while for any companies to undertake the R&D? If your design is not chosen by the legal team, you've wasted all of that time and money - you never even get the chance to vet your design against the public to see what they think. I would liken that to being administratively disqualified, even if your design was superior. The real judges never even got to evaluate your product.

I think Sony and Toshiba both have a couple of catastrophic design failures that prove that consumer support should be the guide, not legislative oversight. Let's look back on the failures of Betamax and HD-DVD. Betamax was technically superior to VHS, but Sony didn't want to play ball with the consumers. Now Betamax is nothing more than a blemish on A/V technology history. Similarly, the format wars between HD-DVD and Blu-ray had a short era of intense competition, but then the standard was chosen by people that were impacted by the technology - not by the government.

At a certain level, I believe this is how technology should be. As an engineer, I want to design things that people want to use. If the people want to use my product, I think they should ultimately be allowed to decide. I don't think the government should be levying requirements on the manufacturer to steer them towards other technology - especially under the guises of environmental good or consumer protection. The government is not only steering manufacturers towards a licensed technology, but they're also requiring the use of OLD technology. The micro-USB "B" form factor has been around for a long time in technology terms and, although it can be used to charge a USB 3.0 device - that's the limit of it's usefulness. As more consumer electronics start to adopt USB 3.0, we'll be left with another split market that will ultimately leave an electronic mess. At some point, people will stop wanting USB 2.0 cables altogether.

It's incredibly seductive to say that the government should step in and force all of the designs into one box, but the other danger to consider is the obtuseness of the government. Officials that aren't in touch with their constituency could potentially side with the lobbyists and not the people. Back in the original context, imagine if the officials are all loyal iPhone users - would everyone pushing for this commonality be happy if Lightning bolt was selected as the new standard? Every new Android, Tizen or Windows phone must now use Lightning bolt. Or better yet, why not make a common OS? That would be the pinnacle of interoperability and ease! The EU... no the world must now use Tizen!

I've seen what happens when the government makes technical decisions and it rarely works out efficiently. In this case, I honestly don't think "designed by committee" is something the people will enjoy if it is ever made official.