Proprietary “Standards” Feel Way Too Controlling




If “software wants to be free”, hardware engineers also want “free” choice to select non-proprietary standards.

I stood in line today for the fifth time in several weeks buying yet another new Apple Lightning cable to replace all of the previous gen (30-pin) iPhone cables—and I cursed Apple and their proprietary lock on the $700 iPhone 6 I didn’t get subsidized from AT&T. Few consumers will realize any of the technical benefits of Apple’s smaller connector since charging the phone is about 98 percent of how most people use the cable.

Yet I’m paying $15 to $30 retail (depending on the store) every time I replace the now-obsolete older iPhone 4s cable in my backpack/briefcase/nightstand/glove box/office. The cables are expensive and are just another way for Apple’s proprietary “standard” to control my life and my wallet. (Note: Apple’s MFi Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad “standard” embedded in the cable assures royalty license fees for Apple; however, the industry-standard USB 3.0 Type-C connector is similar to Lightning yet offers nearly 5x the speed and myriad other communications protocols with headroom.)

A similar proprietary feel surrounds the FM radio receiver built into iPhones and many other handset cellular radio ICs—yet few handset manufacturers or carriers enable the FM radio on the phone that you own (in the US, Sprint is the exception). There’s a concerted radio advertisement push lately by FM broadcasters to get the cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T (and handset manufacturers like Apple) to enable that built-in receiver.

Perhaps to remain relevant in an era of digital streaming, broadcasters are pushing a new app for iOS and Android called NextRadio that builds a nice GUI on your device to tune in and interact with free, local, old-fashioned over-the-air FM transmissions. The carriers, it is assumed, would rather block the free capability and force users to burn data plan megabytes (and battery) instead of enabling the equivalent of the 1970s vintage transistor radio.

Gosh, I hate being told what to do—especially when it comes to technology.

In the embedded space, and particularly with small form factor boards, our industry is rife with “open standards” that only the originating OEM supports. When I spot one of these my questions are always the same:

  1. Who else makes boards that conform to and interoperate with your “standard”?
  2. Do you, or will you allow your competitors access to your specs—freely!—so they can build boards and probably compete against you?

The answer is invariably the same: “No one else makes this ‘standard’ except for us, but we would consider it given the right opportunity.” I’m sure this is what they tell their customers to justify design-ins. Shame on the customer for never demanding free access to the specs and the right to take them to another vendor.

These are examples of why the openness of standards organizations is so beneficial to the embedded industry. We’ve got myriad standards groups that foster “co-opetition” (cooperative-competition between competing vendors) that ultimately create a bigger market for a standard by enabling competition and innovative thinking.

Recent groups that come to mind with soon-to-be ubiquitous standards are: USB-IF (USB 3.0 Type-C), IEEE (40G Ethernet), SGET (SMARC small form factor), VITA (VPX and VNX small form factors), Open Data Plane.org (ODP for server virtualization and SDN), PC/104 Consortium (PCIe-104 OneBank), PCI-SIG (PCI Express), and the Linux Foundation (Linux). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but news about these cross my desk almost daily.

Note that despite their runaway success and widespread adoption, I didn’t mention Android or iOS because they are both proprietary and controlled by Google and Apple, respectively.

In the embedded industry, proprietary “standards” like these may well win a market—but users may hate a standard until something more “open” (and often free) comes along. We can thank Richard Stallman for allegedly catalyzing us to think about free software—but on the hardware side, most embedded developers would prefer to use non-proprietary standards.

Editor’s note: As iOS and Android find their way into automotive IVI head units because of consumer demand, it’ll be interesting to watch how the inherently proprietary automotive industry deals with these two very proprietary “standards”.


ciufo_chrisChris A. Ciufo is editor-in-chief for embedded content at Extension Media, which includes the EECatalog print and digital publications and website, Embedded Intel® Solutions, and other related blogs and embedded channels. He has 29 years of embedded technology experience, and has degrees in electrical engineering, and in materials science, emphasizing solid state physics. He can be reached at cciufo@extensionmedia.com.

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