Play up, China, and play the game

Rather than crying foul over WAPI's rejection, Beijing should take a more Olympian approach in its push to become a technology powerhouse
Written by Leader , Contributor

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." —Baron Pierre de Coubertin

Baron Pierre de Coubertin lived through the golden age of wireless, when pioneers like Marconi and Tesla pushed back the boundaries of radio communication. The father of the modern Olympics died decades too early to experience the singular delights of a standards committee. But those who bring their technologies before such bodies would do well to remember his maxim.

Especially China, which last week launched a startling attack against the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, over the circumstances surrounding the rejection of China's WAPI technology.

China wanted ISO to back WAPI as an international standard for encrypting wireless traffic. ISO had other ideas, and instead plumped for the IEEE's 802.11i.

In a 38-page appeal, China claimed that the IEEE played dirty by lying to ISO. The claim is baseless — the IEEE didn't need to go round peddling false information about 802.11i, it simply had to point to the alarming lack of detail about WAPI.

There's no way that ISO would back a wireless technology without giving it serious, thorough examination. That wasn't possible with WAPI, it appears, as China has declined to release full details. There was no way to check the algorithms for cryptographic strength or for back doors, and such details as were known — its lack of backward compatibility — would have harmed any proposal regardless of its source.

China must accept that while there are many arguments, not all honourable, within the IEEE over the details of standards, testable basic functionality and openness are not optional. If it can't, then the country isn't ready to take the place at the centre of the IT sector that it yearns for.

But ISO and the IEEE aren't blameless either. It would be naive to think that a standards battle can ever be free of scheming, and a company like Intel is bound to fight fiercely to protect its powerful place in the wireless space. But China's feelings can't just be swept aside.

From Beijing, the standards process must look like a cosy love-in. The independent view from London often isn't much different. Those at the heart of the decision-making process must remember that not everyone sees things the Western way.

Baron de Coubertin's maxim will be put to test at the Beijing Olympics in two years' time. Those involved in this embarrassing episode would do well to set this as their deadline for building a closer, friendlier relationship between East and West.

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