Warning: This is only a draft

With the 802.11n spec still in the works, be careful about investing in 'draft n' products

I would never throw cold water on a revolution -- that's just not my style. I really do thrive on chaos, and that's wireless. But there are times one just needs to draw the line in the interests of the truth, a.k.a. reality. I was for some time a marketing guy, having sold out when I was an engineer at least in part because the food was better in marketing, and marketing is full of subtleties and innuendo -- a truly remarkable game that's full of possibilities for creativity and downright fun. But, above all, marketing, like all other worthy human activities, must be based in reality, a.k.a. the truth.

Marketing is about creating awareness and demand for a product or service. At its essence, it's about communication -- getting the facts out. "Marketing spin" is OK provided one never strays from the facts. Stretching, sure. Carefully crafting a message, OK. But what happens when marketing butts up against reality? Which one wins?

Case in point: the plethora of wireless LAN products now being announced as "compliant" with IEEE 802.11n Draft Release 1.0. I was a little suspicious that I would end up writing this column when, quite literally within minutes of the announcement of the approval of Draft 1.0, the chip company Marvell International Ltd. announced the first "draft compliant" chip set.

Now, I've heard about quick-turn semiconductor engineering, but, well, you get my drift. Lots of politics and positioning are associated with .11n. This is one very important standard and will largely determine the future of Wi-Fi. I appreciate enthusiasm, especially in this case.

Anyway, it would be only a matter of a few more moments before we see the first "Draft n-compliant" WLAN systems on the market. Now, I must caution here, I have no idea what it means to be compliant with a draft. 802.11n is not a finished standard. I estimate that eight months to a year of additional work required before it is a standard worthy of being called one. The Wi-Fi Alliance will then develop an interoperability specification, and once this work is complete, then and only then, will we have something we can base products on.

Moreover, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE), of which I am a member, warns on the cover page of the .11n draft not to use the draft for compliance purposes. To do so is misleading at best, in my opinion. Would anyone go see a movie based on the first draft of The DaVinci Code? I don't think so. Great works take time. Would you go see the draft movie if they gave you a free pass to the final film when it's released? That's kind of what the vendors offering "Draft n" products are dangling in front of us with claims of software upgradeability to the final standard. But is that feasible, or even possible? I'm skeptical. And regardless, you won't get your money back if the products ultimately can't be upgraded.

But who cares about upgradeability? I doubt if any residential users will care about this -- once they get the router and client working in their homes, they'll never touch the settings on these products again. So, given that MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output), on which .11n and the draft products are based, really is a great leap forward, perhaps the "draft compliant" products are sufficiently impressive in performance so as to ignore issues related to the standard (or lack thereof) altogether.

Alas, this is not the case, at least as of a week ago, when I ran extensive benchmark tests on the "draft" products. The results, as detailed in our latest Farpoint Group Technical Note, showed that none of the "draft n" products offered performance as good as at least one non-draft-compliant, MIMO-based router that has been on the market for some time. Both throughput and range were much less than I've come to expect. And the "draft" products also failed to interoperate with each other at greater than .11g speeds, which one wouldn't expect given the claims of draft compliance. But the IEEE doesn't specify compliance, compatibility or interoperability criteria, especially in drafts, so I'm not sure exactly what we're getting from the draft.

My advice is to wait for products compliant with whatever the Wi-Fi Alliance says .11n is. In the interim, we continue to recommend MIMO products for those needing higher throughput, better range or improved performance over plain .11g implementations. But we urge caution with respect to the "draft n" products; today's noncompliant products are better performers.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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