Christmas Shopping During the Apocalypse

Every year I promise myself that I’ll start my Christmas shopping early. And every year, Christmas manages to sneak up on me anyway. It’s mid-December, my Santa sack is still practically empty, and it’s time to panic. If the Mayan end of days arrives on Dec 21 I’m sure it will all be very unpleasant, but at least I’d be off the hook.

I may not know what gifts I’ll be giving yet, but I know exactly what I’d like to receive. It’s the same thing I’ve wanted all my life: a flying car. The futurists have been promising them to us ever since I was about five years old, and I’m still waiting.

The futurists have also been predicting the demise of serial communications. They got that wrong, too. Just last week one of our large oil exploration customers mentioned that he’s seeing a lot more serial -- especially RS-485 -- being spec’d as requirements on new systems. The newer standards (and non-standards) may have more sex appeal than serial, but sometimes they only add unnecessary cost and complexity. When you’ve got a rig out in the middle of the North Sea you want systems than can be diagnosed and repaired on the fly, with the tools, parts and skills that you already have on board. You don’t want to helicopter in some uber-specialist who can only get parts from two vendors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a leading member of the IP communications fan club. You can’t beat the interoperability.

But I’m still a charter member of the RS-232/422/485 society, too. When you need something simple and robust, serial is hard to beat. It’s still as rough around the edges as it ever was, and B&B has had to design several hundred different devices to smooth those edges out. But in the end, serial communications can be adapted for just about any application in just about any environment. It’s too useful to ignore. (Drop a comment on the blog if you’ve seen serial show up in some unexpected places in 2012.)

As a technology guru it’s part of my job to help the old stuff get along with the new stuff. We saw a lot of that in 2012, particularly with the launch of our Spectre cellular and wired routers. If visions of remote monitoring dance like sugarplums in your head, cross your fingers and hope that you’ll find a Spectre router in your Christmas stocking. The Spectre routers provide seamless and secure access to your Ethernet and serial equipment -- or even just straight I/O.

However you may feel about cell phones, you can’t deny that they’ve given us enormous blanket of network coverage, and that coverage can be used for more productive purposes than tweeting and texting. Whether you’re looking for remote access or a backup network path, getting your devices to communicate over the cellular network is a cool mix of old technology with the new.

Wi-Fi has continued to progress by leaps and bounds. In 2012 we started to see it stealthily creeping into the formerly sacred ground of wireless sensing. Just a decade ago I remember being heavily involved with nearly all of the VC-funded wireless mesh networking companies. Self-forming, self-healing mesh networks were all the rage in the trade-rags, and I even wrote a few of those articles myself. B&B built products and applications in partnership with some of the up-and-coming companies. Wireless mesh networking looked like the coming thing.

But in each of our pilot installations I ran into the same issue. Our pilot customers didn’t really needed mesh. In fact, most were better off without it. As a mesh-infatuated engineer I’d done my best to evangelize all of the magical benefits that mesh would provide. But in the end, I observed, we wound up dumbing down most of those installations to be point-to-multipoint systems. It made things more simple and reliable, and it solved all kinds of problems with battery life.

After falling off the mesh bandwagon, we developed our Zlinx wireless line. No fancy mesh, no VC startup technology; just an elegant solution for both wireless I/O tunneling, and wireless Modbus.

Now Wi-Fi is the new kid at the party, and he comes with more R&D horsepower than all of the other technologies combined. Wi-Fi chipmakers have started branching into two directions: Faster, farther Wi-Fi and slower, power-sipping Wi-Fi.

Slower, power-sipping Wi-Fi is already taking us in some interesting directions, and we’ll see more of it in 2013. (No doubt to the dismay of the folks who have spent the last decade maintaining that 100 kbps is all the throughput anyone could ever use, and that interoperability isn’t terribly important). Personally, I think we’re pretty close to seeing Wi-Fi sneak into the lead for wireless sensing. I’d love to hear your opinions on that topic.

These technological advances will all be very exciting, and I’m looking forward to it. But I have to admit that it would be icing on the cake if I could do my last-minute Christmas shopping in a flying Kia.

Merry Christmas!