I’m not trying to cause a big sensation (talking about my generation) – The Who
Naming products is an art form. When you let the technical engineering staff figure out what to call something, you end up with a model number like X440 or 8086. When the marketing people get involved at first, you tend to get more order in the naming of things, usually in a series like the 6500 series or the MX series. The idea that you can easily identify a product’s specs based on its name or a model number is nice for those that try to figure out which widget to use. However, that’s all changing.
It started with mobile telephones. Cellular technology has been around in identifiable form since the late 1970s. The original analog signals worked on specific frequencies and didn’t have great coverage. It wasn’t until the second generation of this technology moved entirely to digital transmission with superior encoding that the technology really started to take off. In order to differentiate this new technology from the older analog version, many people made sure to market it as “second generation”, often shortening this to “2G” to save syllables. When it came time to introduce a successor to the second generation personal carrier service (PCS) systems, many carriers started marketing their offerings withe moniker of “3G”, skipping straight past the idea of third generation offering in favor of the catchier marketing term. AT&T especially loved touting the call quality and data transmission rate of 3G in advertising. The 3G campaigns were so successful that when the successor to 3G was being decided, many companies started trying to market their incremental improvements as “4G” to get consumers to adopt them quickly.
Famously, the incremental improvement to high speed packet access (HSPA) that was being deployed en masse before the adoption of Long Term Evolution (LTE) as the official standard was known as high speed packet downlink access (HSPDA). AT&T petitioned Apple to allow their carrier badge on the iPhone to say “4G” when HSPDA was active. Even though speeds weren’t nearly as fast as the true 4G LTE standard, AT&T wanted a bit of marketing clout with customers over their Verizon rivals. When the third generation iPad was released with a true LTE radio later on, Apple made sure to use the “LTE” carrier badge for it. When the iOS 5 software release came out, Apple finally acquiesced to AT&T’s demands and rebranded the HSPDA network to be “4G” with a carrier update. In fact, to this day my iPhone 4S still tells me I’m on 4G no matter where I am. Only when I drop down to 2G does it say anything different.
The fact that we have started referring to carrier standards a “xG” something means the marketing is working. And when marketing works, you naturally have to copy it in other fields. The two most recent entries in the Generation Marketing contest come from Broadcom and Brocade. Broadcom has started marketing their 802.11ac chipsets as “5G wireless.” It’s somewhat accurate when you consider the original 802.11 standard through 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and now 802.11ac. However, most wireless professionals see this more as an attempt to cash in on the current market trend of “G” naming rather than showing true differentiation. In Brocade’s case, they recently changed the name of their 16G fibre channel solution to “Gen 5″ in an attempt to shift the marketing message away from a pure speed measurement (16 gigabit) especially when starting to put it up against the coming 40 gigabit fibre channel over Ethernet (FCoE) offerings coming from their competitor at Cisco.
In both of these cases, the shift has moved away from strict protocol references or speed ratings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, the shift to naming it “something G” reeks quite frankly. Are we as consumers and purchases so jaded by the idea of 3G/4G/5G that we don’t get any other marketing campaigns? What if they’d call it Revision Five or Fifth Iteration instead? Doesn’t that convey the same point? Perhaps it does, but I doubt more than an handful of CxO type people know what iteration means without help from a pocket dictionary. Those same CxOs know what 4G/5G mean because they can look down at their phone and see it. More Gs are better, right?
Generational naming should only be used in the broadest sense of the idea. It should only be taken seriously when more than one company uses it. Is Aruba going to jump on the 5G wireless bandwagon? Will EMC release a 6G FC array? If you’re shaking your head in answer to these questions, you probably aren’t the only one. Also of note in this discussion – What determines a generation? IT people have trouble keeping track of what constitutes the difference between a major version change and a point release update. Why did 3 features cause this to be software version 8.0 but the 97 new features in the last version only made it go from 7.0 to 7.5? Also, what’s to say that a company doesn’t just skip over a generation? Why was HSPDA not good enough to be 4G? Because the ITU said it was just an iteration of 3G and not truly a new generation. How many companies would have looked at the advantage of jumping straight to 5G by “counting” HSPDA as the fourth generation absent oversight from the ITU?
My mom always told me to “call a spade a spade.” I don’t like the idea of randomly changing the name of something just to give it a competitive edge. Fibre channel has made it this far as 2 gig, 4 gig, and 8 gig. Why the sudden shift away from 16 gig? Especially if you’re going to have to say it runs at 16 gig so people will know what you’re talking about? Is it a smoke-and-mirrors play? Why does Broadcom insist on naming their wireless 5G? 802.11a/b/g/n has worked just fine up to now. Is this just an attempt to confuse the consumer? We may never know. What we need to do in the meantime is consider holding feet to the fire and ensuring that consumers and purchasers ensure that this current naming “generation” gets lost.