Pinto's Law of Open-systems Confusion

For several years now, there has been a significant amount of confusion over industrial networks and the fieldbus "standard."  Users and vendors alike have recognized the inexorable trend toward industrial networking - simplify wiring, reduce cabling costs, improved flexibility, easy system expansion or modification, increased fault-tolerance, local and remote communications ability, maintenance and operating diagnostics - the list of benefits is clear.

Everyone wants to be the "standard"

Everyone recognizes the advantages of having a "fieldbus" standard to provide interoperability between network products from different vendors. However, end users are the primary beneficiaries of standards – this gives them a choice of vendors. On the other hand, by conforming to a standard, vendors lose their proprietary edge and their products quickly become competitive commodities – more sources, lower margins.

 The major suppliers develop their own networks to gain a proprietary advantage. After having made significant investments, they promote the advantages and encourage everyone to provide products that support their networks. Although they start off by offering a range of products, no one can build a "standard" alone. The more products that become available from more sources, the more the network becomes a standard. So, they publish their protocols to provide "open" access and allow others to develop additional products, hoping that the performance and price advantages will help develop a bandwagon effect.

 When the network is made "open", the original developer still has two primary advantages: a/ superior knowledge and expertise with their own network - others will still need to gain experience; and b/ they can sell the proprietary tools, chips and software which other users and vendors will need to use the network effectively. It's just good marketing! 

The major suppliers try to develop momentum by promoting their own networks, to attract followers who seek access to the installed base by offering the "standard". Examples: Siemens in Europe with Profibus; Rockwell in the US with ControlNet and DeviceNet, Fisher-Rosemount with Fieldbus Foundation. But others continue to offer competing standards with technical and other advantages that encourage migration to their own "standard". Examples: Echelon's LON; Phoenix Contact Interbus.


The interesting point is that many followers (other smaller suppliers) usually join, not one, but several of the standards groups, hoping to gain access and market share through offering one, or other, or all the "standards". But, of course, this merely dilutes their resources and market focus.


All the while, multi-vendor committees meet to develop "the" standard. But, this movement is futile – since committees must, by definition, achieve a consensus. And, the many suppliers who join the committee thwart consensus; each one pushes for the features that support their own network. For this very reason, the European Standards Committee approved no less than eight "standards" for fieldbus. If this were not so serious, it would be a joke…


End-users want interoperability to reduce over-dependence on just one vendor. But, the proliferation of competing standards confuses them and adoption-rates are reduced by this confusion.


Measuring open systems confusion


Which brings us to Pinto's Law of Open-systems Confusion:


C = P x V/U


C is the Confusion

V is the number of Vendor's supporting a "standard"

U is the number of happy Users


P is Pinto's Confusion-factor, which decreases non-linearly with time


Pinto's Law also governs other major technology advances and standards developments - the emergence of competing standards such as VHS vs Beta format for video tape; PC vs Apple microcomputers; PC operating systems Windows vs UNIX vs Linux, etc. It should be noted that, in each case, confusion reigned for a time, while lots of vendors supported multiple systems.


The Pinto-factor


Eventually confusion subsides. When most vendors support just one system and most users are happy with what they are using, the Pinto-factor reduces asymptotically to 1.

The Pinto-factor can also increase with technology-shifts, which also relate to time. Technology can cause a sudden shift (technology step-change) or slow drift (build-up of dissatisfaction), causing corresponding shifts in the Pinto-factor. For example, in industrial automation there are a lot of happy users of the old 4-20mA standard, which achieved dominance over 10-50mA, 0-20mA, etc. Digital networks then emerged, promising many significant advantages, causing new confusion and a higher Pinto-factor.

 The confusion (as measured by the declining Pinto-factor) reduces with time. An increasing number of happy users begin to realize the benefits of staying with one of the better-supported standards. Software and firmware become stable and most vendors migrate inexorably to one or other of the inevitable handful of alternative standards that yield practical and profitable results.

A single supplier reigns when the Pinto-factor becomes 1. Usually, the original developer is now the market-leader. All the other vendors should now be spending their time looking for new opportunities to develop new standards.



Jim Pinto is a technology entrepreneur, investor, futurist, writer and commentator.

You can email him at: [email protected]. Or look at his writings, poems, prognostications and predictions on his website: