Wi-Fi Direct still finding its stride

Though scarce at CES, the wireless spec may still make it big this year

Wi-Fi Direct is still scarce in announced or shipping products, but it would be wrong to reach a gloomy conclusion about the new peer-to-peer technology from the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The Alliance, which puts the stamp of approval on all Wi-Fi gear, started certifying products with Wi-Fi Direct in late October. About 20 products have been approved, but there were few new Wi-Fi Direct gadgets at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show, which is often watched for new trends. However, that's no reason to count out the new technology, according to vendors and industry observers.

Wi-Fi Direct is a specification for devices to communicate via Wi-Fi without an access point. The capability could have a range of uses, including linking peripherals to PCs, doing quick file transfers anywhere, and connecting home entertainment gear. Wi-Fi Direct can deliver typical Wi-Fi speeds, and peer-to-peer networks can be set up with the technology as long as one of the devices involved is equipped with it.

The new technology is the first realistic option for peer-to-peer networks in the Wi-Fi family of standards. The previous mechanism, called "ad hoc mode," was too complex for most users to set up and worked poorly even when they could.

Vendor-specific tools have filled the void to some degree. For example, Intel introduced Intel My WiFi at CES in 2009, and it is now built into almost all consumer laptops with Intel Wi-Fi chipsets, according to Kerry Forrell, an Intel product manager. Among other things, Intel My WiFi lets laptops send print jobs to printers and synchronize data with mobile phones or portable audio players, he said. Another Intel technology, called Wireless Display, or WiDi, uses Intel My WiFi to send video and audio from Wi-Fi devices to TVs and other displays. Microsoft has gotten into the game with a feature called SoftAP, which allows a Windows PC to turn itself into a virtual access point, again bypassing the need for a dedicated network.

Wi-Fi Direct opens up these capabilities to more devices, beyond the Windows and Intel worlds, said Roel Peeters, vice president of marketing and business development at Ozmo Devices, which makes wireless chipsets. Many types of products, such as TVs and set-top boxes, don't use either Intel or Microsoft. In addition, a standard specification should help all players benefit from market momentum and growing product volume, he said.

The new standard has attracted support from most of the major Wi-Fi silicon providers. Intel, Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell all have had components certified for Wi-Fi Direct. Intel itself plans eventually to include Wi-Fi Direct in all its wireless products, offering it alongside My WiFi and WiDi where those are provided, Forrell said.

Wi-Fi Direct isn't leaping into the market as fast as did some earlier wireless LAN technologies, such as the draft IEEE 802.11n specification that the Wi-Fi Alliance used to certify a new generation of fast WLAN gear starting in 2007. In the first three months of its 11n certification work, the Alliance put its logo on 95 products. But for a variety of reasons, Wi-Fi Direct adoption is a different ball game.

For one thing, Wi-Fi Direct makes entirely new applications possible. Unlike a faster Wi-Fi physical layer, which can be introduced to speed up the exact same applications already in use on Wi-Fi, the new standard needs new software to work, said Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Vendors of peripherals and other gear can package software add-ons with their products. But to streamline the user experience, operating system vendors eventually will have to integrate support into their platforms through OS updates, said Clint Brown, a senior business development manager for wireless LANs at Broadcom.

Likewise, though chipsets with Wi-Fi Direct are already available, hardware development doesn't turn on a dime for teams creating phones and other mobile devices, said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis.

"There is a tremendous premium placed on space in devices that need to fit in your hands and ideally are 10 millimeters thick," Greengart said. "Once you've got a chipset that works, swapping it out usually comes with more costs than benefits." As a result, most vendors will probably wait until they are building products with new chipsets before implementing Wi-Fi Direct, he said.

And certification itself takes time. For example, Ozmo's latest chip, the Ozmo2000, was designed specifically for Wi-Fi Direct but is still being certified. Two products built with the Ozmo2000 were introduced at CES. HP used it in a Wi-Fi mouse and Logitech in an adapter that lets a PC send audio to any standard pair of speakers, Peeters said.

Peeters believes the Ozmo chip will work with Wi-Fi Direct and only lacks the Alliance's formal seal of approval. Conventional Wi-Fi chipsets could be updated through firmware to support the new standard, but they aren't optimized for it, he said. For example, the Ozmo2000 was designed for low cost and low power consumption, with mice and keyboards in mind, he said.

For producing working consumer products with Wi-Fi Direct, the certification process seems to have come too late for many vendors.

"One of the challenges for Wi-Fi Direct was launching in October," Broadcom's Brown said. "It's really not timed very well for the fall selling season."

Most products shown at CES are developed before the show, then completed early in the year and produced in high volume by late summer, in preparation for the fourth-quarter shopping season, Brown said. The late-October kickoff didn't necessarily provide enough time to prepare, he said.

However, some vendors seem to have seized the opportunity. LG Electronics made the biggest splash with Wi-Fi Direct at CES, demonstrating the technology on the newly announced LG Optimus Black handset. The demonstration included quickly sending multimedia content from the phone to TV and PC screens just by flicking a finger across the phone's touchscreen. LG used DLNA, a Digital Living Network Alliance standard for connectivity among consumer electronics devices, in conjunction with Wi-Fi Direct. The Optimus Black is expected to go on sale in the first half of this year.

LG is in the lead for Wi-Fi Direct consumer products, with four Blu-ray Disc players, two home theater systems and a network adapter for older TVs already certified. Samsung has its GT-I9000 smartphone on the list, which otherwise is made up mostly of reference designs.

Though 2011 didn't start with a bang for Wi-Fi Direct, the coming year could be very big for the new technology.

"You're going to see a lot of developers coming to the fore in the next few months," said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Not every Wi-Fi Alliance initiative has been a big success, said Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias, pointing to its Wi-Fi Zone program in 2003. But he believes this one has promise, particularly for mice and keyboards.

"It's obviously not a huge thing yet," Mathias said. "It's going to take time."

(Additional reporting by Martyn Williams.)

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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