Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Doing it right and still not working...

Problems will emerge when making a product no matter how big you are or how long you have been in the business. Once a company realizes they have a problem with the FireWire port on a device, they are not going to publicize it. They will make sure that all their products work together and then hope for the best. Compliance testing, it was feared, would only make it obvious that Company A was having design issues. To remove the stigma of being one of the few companies testing products, the 1394TA worked with member companies to get everyone to start testing products once the tests were available. However, the feedback from major companies was that they were not getting significant returns due to FireWire bugs. Additionally, to start compliance testing 7 – 8 years after products started shipping could only serve to raise concerns. It was speculated that customers would assume that significant problems had only recently been discovered and suddenly the whole industry was franticly testing products. The whole effort was sunk from the beginning.

But there was an additional issue which caused fully compliant products to fail when connected over FireWire. The 1394TA standards included a few mandatory features and a long list of optional features. If Sony decided to support optional feature X and Panasonic chose to not support that option, then feature X would not work between the two products. Imagine a dozen features that may or may not be supported on all the products in your home and you can see the problem.

Compliance testing would do nothing to remedy this problem.

1394/FireWire was not alone in this. Recently, retail giant Best Buy failed products using a competing technology (DLNA) largely due to the “too many optional features” problem. To find an article on this issue, simply Google “Best Buy DLNA”.

In the computer world, these problems were largely transparent to the user. The operating systems from both Apple and Microsoft mask most problems. The software simply included 100s of work-arounds to prevent the products from failing. Once again, 1394 is not alone in this. USB developers have frequently stated to me that 1,000s of bug fixes are in the operating systems from MS and Apple to keep USB working. Those who are not mouthpieces for the industries making money off of USB (i.e. people not selling USB silicon or cables) decry the poor quality of the USB technology and the millions of man hours required to get it working and keep it working. But it works “good enough” and that is all the consumer knows.

There is a lot to be said about “good enough”. 1394 could have learned a lesson there as I will cover in the next installment.

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