May 2012

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The Protocol Peace Dividend

Let’s Get It Right in Wireless

Andy McMillan Andy McMillan
President and GM
Philips Teletrol
BACnet International
Contributing Editor

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There was a time when a lot of time, effort and ink (both physical and virtual) were devoted to articles that extolled the virtues of particular building automation protocols while disparaging others.  I’ve occasionally heard that time referred to nostalgically as “The Protocol Wars” by folks who were engaged in the process.  Regardless of the merits of competing technical claims, it’s clear to me that there was a lot of collateral damage in terms of confusion in the marketplace and users deferring decisions until “the winner was clear.”  That is why it concerns me to see early signs suggesting some folks in the wireless protocol arena may be picking up their literary weapons.

The Winds of (Wireless) War?

As you probably know, there are a number of wireless protocols and technologies being promoted for use in building automation.  Several of them are based broadly accepted network standards (e.g. IEEE 802.15.4) but add their own application layers, unfortunately making them incompatible at the device level.  Over the last few years the BACnet and ZigBee communities have worked together to define a way to combine the two such that compatible mesh wireless devices operate seamlessly in an overall BACnet solution.  You would think this is a good thing, right?  Apparently, if you are a staunch supporter of an alternative to ZigBee, maybe not.

A recent press release on the BACnet over ZigBee solution generated some interesting feedback.  Apparently (and I admit this is second or third hand) someone noticed that the press release used a word or two that could be interpreted to mean that this was the only possible way to create a BACnet solution incorporating wireless.  This caused them enough angst that they felt compelled to contact the BACnet International press office and for the release to be  “corrected.”  As President of BACnet International the issue eventually made its way to me which in turn prompted this column.  We took care of the issue around the press release but it caused me some concern because that kind of sensitivity to incidental press promoting a competing technology is reminiscent of the past (thankfully) protocol wars.

contemporary A Lesson from History

Those of you that lived through “BACnet – LON Protocol Wars” know just how unproductive it was.  Time and money spent “talking down” alternative protocols just added to the “noise” in the marketplace and diminished the resources available for positive market development.  Worse, it confused many users who lacked the technical depth to even understand what was being said.  As a result, the market for open, interoperable building automation was actually hindered.  Fortunately, the industry matured beyond that “war” and the result was a “peace dividend” of rapid growth in user acceptance and increased market growth.       

As an observer who has lived through similar “protocol wars” in three different industries I can say with confidence that they are never productive.  They result in user confusion and they interfere with the natural process of collaboration that leads to eventual interoperable solutions … which, after all, is what we actually want.  The more productive way to develop the interoperable wireless industry around building automation is for proponents of each protocol/technology to promote the strengths of their approach and avoid disparaging others.  This will lead to much more rapid adoption with far more productive relationships among the players in the industry.  In fact, it is kind of like getting the “peace dividend” without the downside of having the war.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Teletrol, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at


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