In the public-safety sector, when one thinks of interoperability the image that immediately comes to mind is one where first responders from myriad response agencies are able to communicate with each other even though they are on disparate radio systems. But researchers at the University of New Hampshire have something else in mind. They're working to ensure interoperability of the components that go into a variety of consumer-oriented communications devices, including smart phones and tablet PCs. The goal not only is to make such devices perform better, but also to reduce the price that end users pay for them.

The idea is that component interoperability will result in best-in-class devices and lower production costs because device manufacturers will have more choices, which in turn will spawn economies of scale that don't exist today, said David Woolf, senior technical staff member with the university's interoperability lab.

"The benefit is in terms of speeding up the development time for the people who are making handsets," Woolf said. "If they're able to work with a single set of interfaces or specifications, it speeds up their time because they don't have to redesign something every time they come out with a new product. That reduces their cost of producing and developing the product, which can be passed on to the end user."

The lab's interoperability efforts aren't limited to external components such as display screens, but also extend to the internal components, such as chip sets, that power such devices. A primary goal is to reduce pin count on the components within the device. One might not think that's a very big deal, but one would be wrong, according to Woolf.

"If you think of a chip that goes into a mobile phone, the fewer pins it has on it, the less space it takes up and the cheaper that component becomes," he said. "When you're talking about selling tens of millions of these products, shaving a little bit off the cost of one component can have a pretty big impact on the final cost of the device."

The lab — which has been operating since 1988 — hosted a week-long testing event held at an Agilent Technologies facility in Santa Clara, Calif., last November that attracted several component vendors. Getting them into the same room also was a big deal, Woolf said.

"Companies are capable of doing the testing that we did at the event in their own labs," he said. "But what happens is that they end up doing it with one company at a time. The real benefit of our event was that they could test with a lot of companies in a short period of time, and work with a lot of people that otherwise they might not even meet."

Another benefit of the university's interoperability testing program, according to Woolf, is that it offers third-party validation.

"We collect products from all of the different companies that are involved in a technology and test them against each other," he said. "If they're able to obtain a report from our lab that indicates that they conform to the specification and interoperate with product A, B, C and D, that's something they can use to market their product."

Speaking from the perspective of a hyper-frugal consumer, I wish Woolf and his mates at the University of New Hampshire's interoperability lab the best of luck. Hopefully their efforts one day soon will drive smart phone prices down to the point where I'll finally learn what the buzz is all about.

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