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Crossing the Wireless Chasm:
A Standards Nightmare

(SIGCHI Bulletin November/December 2002)


In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore discusses the differing needs of early adopters of new technology and the majority adopters that follow (see Figure 1). He describes this conceptual gulf as the chasm that needs to be bridged if a technically innovative product is going to be successful in the mass market. Don Norman picks up this theme in The Invisible Computer, arguing that the chasm is largely a matter of usability (although he avoids that particular word). Both authors use numerous examples from the 1980’s and 90’s, but for more recent examples, we need look no further than the products serving as the building blocks of the mobile internet.

Diagram showing normal distribution with chasm between early adopters and the majority adopters
Figure 1, The Technology Adoption Lifecycle (adapted from Moore, 1999)

WAP (Wireless Access Protocol or What A Palaver) was seriously over-hyped by telecoms suppliers and disparaged with equal enthusiasm by customers and the usability community. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) now offer a more acceptable screen area than the very limiting WAP phones, but using traditional connection-oriented services to reach the Internet is both expensive and frustratingly slow. This is where two competing but complementary technologies enter in supporting roles: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (also called WLAN but formally known as IEEE 802.11b). Bluetooth is named after a king that united Denmark and Norway, the parallel being that the technology unites computers and telecoms. Wi-Fi is another installment of that ever-popular 802 series of standards covering local and metropolitan area networks (LANs and MANs, respectively). Both are being used to connect mobile devices to larger networks, with Bluetooth operating in ranges of up to 10 meters. Wi-Fi works at up to 100 meters given favorable conditions (usually an open field and a following wind).

From a technical viewpoint these may well be admirable standards. The nightmare unfolds when we consider their target audiences. Bluetooth is aimed squarely at consumers, yet little or no attempt has been made to use appropriate terms or to provide a simple conceptual model within the standard. If this was not bad enough, manufactures provide very little information about Bluetooth with their products. When they do, they use their own terminology. So, for example, a simple aspect of a Bluetooth piconet is that it is controlled by exactly one master. Yet, I have four Bluetooth devices, all from different manufacturers and none mention the terms piconet, master or slave (three of the four manufacturers do not attempt to describe how it works at all). Bluetooth also brings us wonderfully mixed and confusing metaphors like slaves being “parked”.

By comparison Wi-Fi standard should have been relatively easy to make intelligible to users already familiar with local area networks. After all, it is primarily a wire-free alternative to LANs. Nevertheless it too suffers from a number of confusing concepts and terms. For example, it would have been very straightforward to refer to the wired-LAN equivalent of a hub as a “wireless hub”. Instead we have “access point”. (No doubt there are good reasons why “access point” is a better term from the authors’ point of view, but I bet that users of Wi-Fi outnumber the standard’s authors by a factor of 100,000.) There is no shortage of further examples. Users installing their Wi-Fi adaptors need to know whether they should select infrastructure or ad-hoc mode. This turns out simply to mean whether they are using access points or not (infrastructure uses access points, ad-hoc does not). The encryption scheme (WEP) is so poorly described and difficult to set up that users do not generally bother. As a consequence Wi-Fi is being banned by some organizations since it provides easy targets for “drive-by hacking”.

Both technologies may survive these teething problems, but I think that there are some lessons to be learned in the standards process:

  • Standards committees should include (and listen to!) members of the HCI community.
  • Concepts and terms should be tested with users. Standards compliance should mean manufacturers including adequate user-centered documentation with their products.

In the meantime, if you are having trouble with these technologies rest assured that you are not alone. And while the standards documents are free to download (URLs below), they will not be of much help (the Bluetooth core specification alone is more than 1,000 pages). The best solution will be to go to your favorite book site and select one of the many titles that these confusing standards have created markets for (assuming, of course, that you haven’t disposed of that wired internet connection too soon).

Bibliography

Geoffrey Moore (1999), Crossing the Chasm, Second Edition, Capstone Publishing, Oxford (also at Amazon.co.uk)

Donald Norman (1998), The Invisible Computer, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Web Sites (also at Amazon.co.uk)

Bluetooth SIG: www.bluetooth.com

IEEE 802 Standards (free to download): standards.ieee.org/getieee802
(click on “Terms and Conditions” towards the bottom of the page)

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 3, November-December 2002} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/571740.571750

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