Technology: Silicon Players And OEMs Navigating The Evolution Of Wireless Sensor Networks

Wireless Sensor Networks – Navigating Rough Waters

Why do we need to analyze these networks? After all, don’t we already have a range of wireless standards?  Aren’t the standards committees hard at work, refining and optimizing these standards?  Aren’t wireless standards already evolving and growing?

The short answer is, “yes”…but if we left it at that we’d be foolish and short-sighted.

Consider this analogy from Buckminster Fuller: Suppose you are traveling on an ocean liner that suddenly begins to sink. If you rip the lid off the grand piano in the ballroom, throw it overboard, and jump on it, the floating piano lid may well save your life. But if, under normal circumstances, you set about to design the best possible life preserver, are you going to come up with the lid of a grand piano?

Probably not.

Wireless sensor standards are like the piano lid: they’ve kept us afloat in these times of change and tumult, but they are far from ideal. These standards were developed for niche and general applications, with overlap in key functional areas and since their inception, the various standard committees have been liberally re-purposing their technologies to span sectors and venues, which has only heightened the level of confusion.

[Harbor Research recently released 2012 WPAN Technologies Report - view and download more information here]
[Harbor Research recently released 2012 WPAN Technologies Report – view and download more information here]


Determining which standard to invest in has far-reaching and deep consequences. Given the wide range of options available to silicon players, OEMs and end-users, this decision cannot be easy and making sound decisions requires a complete understanding of the complex forces and interdependencies at work in the WPAN arena.


Looking Forward

This confusion can be debilitating and these conflicts should be a catalyst for the rival communities to band together in the standards committees and streamline communications and eliminate these differences for the benefit of the market and end-users.

It is far from likely that this will happen. Standards committees are full of engineers and those who like the status quo, and we believe these groups are unlikely to merge unless forced to by market realities. We believe entrepreneurs and companies will need to force the issue in the market through product innovation until there is a clear winner either in each application or, more likely, across a broad portion of the industry.

However, as we speak the tides of change are shifting.  The line between WPAN and WLAN devices is already becoming blurred. Both networking technologies fulfill similar functions in the eyes of consumers, albeit with differing speeds and capabilities. It is likely that both technologies will coexist for the foreseeable future, but in the medium- to long-term (we estimate by 2025) the tipping point is breached, forcing one of two outcomes. Either WPAN or WLAN will have made a technological breakthrough, which renders the other useless, or the technologies will have been combined and the distinction between a PAN and a LAN will have been consigned to the history books. The overarching question relative to market development is whether Internet Protocol directly to the device will become the long-term direction or whether, in fact, these markets end up accommodating several different non-IP-based technologies connected via gateways.

Given the fact that wireless sensor technologies are an undeniable force driving the Internet of Things, their importance and influence cannot be overstated.  Choosing and supporting the ‘right’ and more importantly the ‘winning’ technology for any given application will be one of the most important decisions that suppliers and OEMs will make in this next chapter of the IoT markets development – Smart Devices and Systems.


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