Anyone who has survived the last several years in the electronic industry know what I mean when I say that these are very turbulent times. Disruptive technologies in both the hardware and software arenas combined with the relentless pressure of convergence in functionality, marketplace, and the business itself have made life very interesting for electronic design engineers.

The issues facing the industry are myriad. Designing in a flat world with multiple regulations, diverse customer requirements, and international suppliers can tax even the most resourceful organization.

What bothers me the most, though, is the industry infighting over who determines the standards on the current wave of developing technology. Such squabbles make it difficult for cross-platform cooperation in functionality and communication, features vital in the adoption of new products by the marketplace.

I have no problem with proprietary technology on the inside of the box, as device performance is based on the core technology used and how it is configured and deployed. However, the way that box communicates with the rest of the system should be in a recognized inter-organizational protocol to make systems integration an easier task for the engineer. If a company feels that the existing communication and control protocols are insufficient, they should make their solution at least core-function compatible with what is used by the rest of the industry.

The issues of inter-device operability and intuitive user interface standards at the consumer level are also extremely important and will directly impact how future devices perform. For example, if Apple patents the “pinch”, the two-finger zoom and other ease-of-use haptic functionality used in the iPhone and iPod Touch, then other manufacturers will have to come up with their own proprietary methods which will mean that different devices will have different ways of performing basic touchscreen tasks, further confusing today’s electronics consumer.

The problem of device and user standards will only increase in importance as electronic devices are expected and demanded to function seamlessly in a complex information-driven economy and society. Those who address compliance, interoperability, and intuitive design in their products will find a ready and willing customer base eager to free themselves of proprietary systems that seem to be in place only to benefit the company involved.
As much as I rail against proprietary systems, there are benefits to a company that can successfully implement them, mitigating a closed system with excellent design. The aforementioned Apple has managed to not only avoid any repercussions of their proprietary approach, but also secure significant market share by using a methodology, interface, and software protocol unique to their product line.

What do you think? Can a company use whatever communication and interface protocols it chooses? Is the choice limited by the consumer, or the designer? As the industry begins the latest round of next-generation technology deployments, will it always be a Beta/VHS Blue Ray/HD-DYD situation? When the CD and DVD were first deployed there was a format war brewing both times, but industry “co-opetition” benefitted significantly from settling its format and interface differences prior to deployment.

Alix Paultre, Editor in chief