Nonstandard behavior

When you’re in the business of making new technological standards, you want to promote your standard so equipment manufacturers will adopt it for their gear. One downside to wide acceptance, however, is the possibility that the standard will be used in unauthorized ways. This is roughly the situation that National Marine Electronics Association faces with its NMEA 2000 standard. Unauthorized use has reached sufficient levels such that Johnny Lindstrom, chairman and acting executive director of the NMEA, has spoken out about the problem.

Lindstrom said he noticed the issue a while ago when using a cell carrier’s aircard for his laptop. “I was messing around with it one day and came across some settings for NMEA 0183 networking.” He wondered if the company that made the aircard had paid to use the NMEA standard. Lindstrom found that the company had not properly paid for the right to use 0183. Lindstrom said that NMEA is still investigating that case as well as several others.

Unlike an open hardware standard like universal serial bus (USB) or an open software standard like transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), the software system used for sending data on the worldwide web, NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 are proprietary standards. Companies that wish to use NMEA 0183 must first purchase a document that contains the standard and instructions on how to apply it. For 2000, firms must submit their product for certification. Part of NMEA certification involves purchasing the right to use these standards.

Lindstrom stated in a recent NMEA press release, “The NMEA is a member-supported industry organization that supports the marine electronics industry by providing technical training and the development of various standards. The standards developed and released are the sole property of our members.”

“This is just one instance; there are numerous cases where ‘NMEA 2000 compatible’ or some variation of this description is used. There is no such thing as ‘NMEA 2000 compatible’ — the product is either certified or it is not, as stated in the NMEA licensing agreement.” Lindstrom further pointed out that companies don’t have to become NMEA members, but they are required to pay for use.

In a way, the need for NMEA to chase down unauthorized users is a good thing — it shows that companies are making use of NMEA 2000. “Unauthorized use” is one of the perils of success in the digital age. Seems that route is better than a completely airtight, locked-up standard that electronics companies ignore!

By Ocean Navigator