Wi-Fi Direct provides P2P wireless sans hot spots

Products now being certified to use 'groundbreaking' technology

Wi-Fi Direct officially became a concrete technology today with several new laptop components certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. That threshold was reached even before most people even understand what Wi-Fi Direct is.

Wi-Fi Direct is a new technology designed to allow peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connections between devices like smartphones and cameras without a traditional Wi-Fi network or the need for Wi-Fi access points.

This means that a camera with Wi-Fi Direct installed could communicate via Wi-Fi to a digital picture frame or printer, uploading picture data over the same range of existing Wi-Fi of about 200 yards at speeds of up to 250Mbit/sec., said Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa in an interview. The alliance calls the technology "groundbreaking."

"Wi-Fi Direct is peer-to-peer technology, but you don't need a [Wi-Fi] access point to do this," he said. "Imagine if two people were on a train and wanted to play a game in real time on their separate handhelds but had no cellular or Wi-Fi hot spot. They still could play with Wi-Fi Direct."

The Wi-Fi Alliance has posted an FAQ about the technology on its Web site.

In another scenario, Figueroa said a user could be taking photographs on the upper deck of a ship and sending the pictures to a Wi-Fi Direct-enabled laptop on a deck below.

The same concept could work for a salesperson making a presentation to customers at their business, he said. She could use a laptop or smartphone to communicate to a projector at the customer's offices to show slides or video, without the need for wires or physical connections.

The Wi-Fi Alliance said consumer and business products using Wi-Fi Direct will expand greatly in coming weeks, and it announced five products that the group has certified to be Wi-Fi Direct-ready. They are mostly laptop components and include an Atheros PCI mini card, an Intel Centrino internal PCI half mini card, a reference design from Ralink, a Realtek PCI mini card and a product identified only as a Broadcom BCM43224 module. Other companies are expected to make announcements of Wi-Fi Direct support today.

As with other peer-to-peer networks, security could be a worry for some users, but Figueroa said "security is baked in to every connection" with WPA2 authentication and encryption.

Only one device in a pair of devices needs to have Wi-Fi Direct software installed, and the peer-to-peer sharing would be initiated with the press of a button or input of a personal identification number (PIN), Figueroa said. At some point, it will be possible for users to download Wi-Fi Direct software wirelessly to a device, he said.

"Wi-Fi Direct will be embedded in phones, cameras, TVs, MP3 players," he said. "It's exciting to think of the applications." Existing Wi-Fi, also known as 802.11 a/b/g/n, is 11 years old and is used by an estimated 700 million people with 1 billion devices.

Figueroa said much of the attention on Wi-Fi Direct technology has been focused on corporate security, but the resulting Wi-Fi Alliance certification specification allows for a corporate wireless LAN to shut out Wi-Fi Direct uses entirely, or to designate certain portions of the wireless network to allow it. In the example of the salesperson using a projector, that Wi-Fi Direct connection between the salesperson's device and the projector could operate outside of a corporate wireless network, he said.

Rob Enderle, a wireless analyst at Enderle Group, said the concept of Wi-Fi Direct will evolve into a way for users to "piggyback on a Wi-Fi Direct network connection and then connect to the Web where you might otherwise not be able to."

But from a security standpoint, he warned that any computer could become an access point. "If you have had problems with rogue access, oh boy, watch out.... You may need to rethink your security procedures," Enderle said.

Enderle said a user with Wi-Fi Direct would need to enable the security separately and, if not, could be vulnerable. Figueroa, however, said setting the security protections is not separate and is automatically a part of launching Wi-Fi Direct overall.

Wi-Fi Direct appears to be so new that many experts are still learning about its nuances and haven't been able to try out the gear that uses it.

"I haven't tried it because there aren't any products with it yet," said Craig Mathias, an independent Wi-Fi expert with a long history of hands-on consulting experience at The Farpoint Group. "So far, it sounds like a technology that's a shot across the bow of Bluetooth," a shorter-range wireless technology in wide usage.

"I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the stuff," Mathias added. "The potential is great."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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