Wi-Fi: Yesterday and Today

In the IEEE, technical excellence is valued and often demanded, but increasingly, the process has as much to do with the economics of standards as with the merits of architectures.

May 19, 2006

3 Min Read
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To paraphrase an old brokerage commercial, when the IEEE speaks, people listen. Sometimes, though, one wonders about the credibility of whoever's doing the talking. Much as we might hope, it's unrealistic to expect standards bodies to choose the best solution to a problem; best solutions hardly ever exist. It's more a question of "satisficing," a term economists sometimes use to describe the compromise-filled process of making an acceptable decision without spending years deliberating. In fact, years--seven of them to be exact--are what it took the IEEE to develop the initial 802.11 standard. Let's hope we don't endure that kind of wait again.

Give credit where credit is due. The IEEE is arguably the most important industry standards body, shaping the future of networking by defining the squareness of pegs and the roundness of holes. It's an odd amalgam of technical wizards and marketers, determined to find their way from technical potential to product reality--on terms that benefit their sponsors. In the IEEE, technical excellence is valued and often demanded, but increasingly, the process has as much to do with the economics of standards as with the merits of architectures. And that's not necessarily bad.

Early Movers

The term "Wi-Fi" provides subtle commentary on the power and limits of the IEEE. A number of years ago, some smart people in the wireless industry came to the conclusion that selling "Wi-Fi" was a whole lot easier than selling "IEEE 802.11b." The original 802.11 standard, the foundation upon which all current Wi-Fi products are based, had taken far too long to complete and problems quickly became apparent. Granted, the technical issues were complex but, much like today's battle over 802.11n, vendor politics also played a role.

Proxim and Symbol had established successful proprietary product lines with strong followings. Both companies understood that a standard was inevitable, so they did their best to position themselves accordingly. I remember testing both companies' early 802.11 offerings. It took considerable pressure on my part to get them to tweak their default settings to achieve interoperability. Over time, Symbol fared a bit better in making the transition from proprietary product to standards-based offering. Although both were dominant in the pre-802.11 WLAN market, neither is viewed as an enterprise wireless technology leader capable of pushing industry standards. That torch has been passed up-market, to wireless technology companies, most of which are once-removed from enterprise IT professionals.The New 802.11

The emerging 802.11n standard provides a glimpse into a newer and more complex standards value chain, where arch-enemy silicon fabricators form alliances and conspire with equipment manufacturers to determine what future Wi-Fi wireless will look like. Much of the technical architecture of tomorrow's 11n Wi-Fi was developed outside the stodgy confines of internal IEEE standards processes.

It's technology politics at its best, the modern equivalent of the smoke-filled rooms of earlier eras, where common enemies are more important than friends. The MIMO technology that gives 11n its kick was commercialized by Airgo, whose founders discovered and harnessed the magic of spatial multiplexing. The clever twist was its adherence to existing 802.11 standards, which assured backward compatibility.

Airgo's early market lead may prove to be its undoing. The company is still heavily promoting its True MIMO technology, a mature third-generation offering. Meanwhile, "upstart" competitors like Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, Marvel and TI are launching their own MIMO offerings, branded as draft 802.11n compliant. They're offered with no guarantee of compatibility with the final standard, which is likely to undergo significant changes, despite the pressure from silicon providers. Politics may play a key role within the IEEE, but sometimes, the best technology prevails.

Dave Molta is a Network Computing senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]1022

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