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WLAN Standards, Cisco-Style

When I reviewed Cisco's wireless LAN security system in 2001, I was impressed with its functionality but couldn't recommend it to most people because Cisco's proprietary LEAP authentication scheme locked you into Cisco's NICs. If you purchased a Dell notebook with embedded wireless, it wouldn't work with Cisco's system.

Looking back, I have a better appreciation of Cisco's frustration with my conclusions. Here we are two years later, and there's still no standards-based wireless security system available. And though there's hope that 802.11i eventually will be passed, the situation is so bad that the Wi-Fi Alliance felt the need to step in and define its own security standard, known as WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access).

Cisco finally concluded that enough is enough. It's losing enterprise WLAN infrastructure sales every day because of the lack of interoperable security standards. So rather than wait, Cisco is creating its own standards, which it calls Cisco Compatible Extensions, and licensing the technology at no cost to all the major WLAN chipmakers. The result: Before long, you'll be able to get LEAP support on non-Cisco NICs, making Cisco's system a more open solution.

If Cisco had stopped there, industry insiders would have grumbled and their customers would have a workable solution to their problems. But Cisco chose to go beyond no-cost licensing and introduced a certification and branding program as well. In short, Cisco made this a marketing event. Cisco argues that the only way to guarantee interoperability is to certify products. I don't buy that. The technology is not so complex that vendors can't perform internal testing. Yes, some implementations may have bugs, but certification is no guarantee of interoperability because vendors often change their products after certification has been completed.

Cisco is today's dominant market force in WLAN infrastructure, not only because of its market leadership in wired infrastructure but also because it offers excellent products. To grow the industry as a whole, Cisco needs to avoid even the appearance that it's thwarting standards, and by that measure, Cisco Compatible Extensions is a bad idea.