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Generation W

The market for consumer-oriented Wi-Fi WLAN products is exploding. Starting from nowhere in 2000, Linksys captured more than 11 percent of the global wireless LAN market in 2002, catching the eye of Cisco Systems' acquisition brain trust in the process.

The Wi-Fi hotspot market also is burgeoning, as a complex value chain of infrastructure and service providers promises to deliver wireless broadband data services to a location near you.

But despite all this kinetic motion, the enterprise WLAN market has remained nearly flat. A modest increase in unit volume in 2002 was offset by a decline in dollar value, to about $800 million, according to Synergy.

Why? Faced with demand emanating from the executive suite as well as business units, IT professionals are struggling--not so much with whether they should deploy, but with what to deploy and when. Underlying standards issues create uncertainty regarding investment protection, security problems are legendary, and manufacturers have failed to provide true enterprise-class WLAN systems. But that's all about to change.

In 2004, we'll see new products, together with--fingers crossed--the resolution of some significant standards issues (see "WLAN Standards Watch,"). For the first time, an IT manager will be able to deploy a scalable, secure, manageable WLAN that can serve as a high-availability infrastructure for both conventional applications, such as Web access and e-mail, and emerging functions, including wireless voice over IP.

First-generation WLANs were proprietary and targeted at high-margin vertical applications, like retail and warehousing. Many were viewed as operational support systems outside the province of IT, and few network engineers bookmarked the Web sites of leading market players like Aironet Wireless Communications, Proxim and Symbol Technologies.

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