Does Wi-Fi still matter?

The term has become synonymous with wireless LANS

There's a tendency among engineers to think that great engineering leads to great products, which in turn leads to market success. It might, sometimes. But we live in an era where marketing is at least as important as engineering in ensuring a product's success. Innovations die on the vine all the time, victims of potential customers never knowing about or at the very least understanding and appreciating their value.

While we're all users of wireless LANs today, the primary reason for this was the development of the mass market that followed the codification of 802.11b in 1999 and, more importantly, the creation of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, known today as the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The alliance has almost single-handedly been responsible for publicizing the benefits of WLANs to enterprises and particularly consumers. More importantly, the alliance also provided a framework for interoperability testing. Interoperability has been crucial to the broad acceptance of essentially all networking technologies over the years. Without the IEEE 802.3 standard, would Ethernet be synonymous with LAN today? Indeed, Wi-Fi is now synonymous with wireless LANs, thanks in large part to the work of the alliance.

But therein lies a new challenge. The alliance has lost, to a great degree, control of the evolution of commercial wireless LAN technology. The term Wi-Fi has passed into the public domain due to the alliance's inability to protect it. Many, if not most, customers assume that their product is "Wi-Fi" even though it may not have passed the required certification tests.

For example, I recently spent almost a week testing the latest crop of MIMO-based wireless LANs for rate-vs.-range throughput and interoperability. Even though all appeared to be backward-compatible with 802.11g (although most lacked compatibility with one another when operating in MIMO mode), not one had Wi-Fi certification. A buyer, though, looking at the box, probably wouldn't notice and would simply assume that these products are in fact Wi-Fi-approved. Given that there's no standard here other than in some cases vague claims of "Draft n" compliance, the alliance could (and I believe will shortly) step in with a definition of what meets this specification. We still, regardless, need to look at "Draft n" as an interim and ultimately terminal step in the evolution of wireless LANs.

To be fair, the alliance is now pursuing a number of new directions, including the following:

  • Wi-Fi Mobile Convergence:The alliance is working with the CTIA, the preeminent cellular industry trade association, on technical issues relating to handoff between these two worlds -- a critical step in the future of both. While there are many other efforts in this direction, the combination of the two most important wireless trade associations is worthy of close attention.
  • Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Developed under the label "Simple Configuration," this spec allows the simplified setting of security parameters, particularly for nontechnical residential customers. Whether using a push-button technique or some other one, this effort is important in eliminating complexity for those who just want to get a secure network operating quickly.
  • 802.11n: No matter what, the alliance will produce certification criteria for the approved 802.11n standard when the IEEE substantially completes its work. In fact, given the long delay now obvious in the development of 802.11n by the IEEE, I expect the alliance to take the unprecedented step of certifying an early draft of the standard (probably 2.0, in the second quarter of next year) for production products. This will correct, at least in part, the current "Draft n" mess and eliminate what might be a long period of limbo between general awareness of the technology (thereby suppressing demand for .11g products) and the availability of certified MIMO products, even if well in advance of the IEEE completing its work.

And they have other items on the agenda that will begin to appear over the next year. In short, the Wi-Fi Alliance is now perhaps more important than ever, and I expect it to remain the focal point of the wireless LAN industry for many years to come.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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