Life is messy.
That's a simple sentence, isn't it? Just three little words, but they can cover a multitude of events. Just when it seems that there is a predictable order to the universe, something happens to show how fragile that order really is.
So what does this have to do with communications? The answer is: everything. Several major wireless local-area network (WLAN) vendors are trying to convince customers that 802.11a is not happening. This intrigues me, because we have been working with Atheros' 802.11a chip set in our labs for about a year, and by the time you read this, products from companies like IBM, Intel and Proxim should be available.
Why is it so hard for some companies to believe in this technology? For one thing, it is out of order. The IEEE committees that define these standards decreed that 802.11b would get a midlife kicker from 802.11g. Defined as an upwardly compatible upgrade to 802.11b, 802.11g uses the same 2.4-GHz bandwidth and can work with 802.11b.
However, the problem with the 802.11g standard is that it simply took too long to happen. While internal wrangling stalled progress, the 802.11a group largely finished its work, unencumbered by the coexistence issues that tend to plague 2.4-GHz devices. So while the networking giants were defining an orderly migration from 802.11b to 802.11g, small fry like Atheros came in and redefined the game.
While vendors will push the advantages of 802.11g over 802.11a, that is largely a smoke screen. The huge problem with that debate is that the latter standard can be bought today, while there is still a long path to product for the new 'g' standard. Even worse, there are several flavors of 'g,' two of them mandatory and one optional, which doesn't bode well for interoperability. I would expect that products based on the 802.11g standard won't be available until the end of 2002, at the earliest, and that solidly interoperable products won't appear until six months later.
The role of .11g is FUD
The real role of 802.11g in this debate is to introduce FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) into the acceptance of 802.11a. If these vendors can hold off that standard for a while, they can sell their 802.11b wares long enough to cover their costs and maybe even make some money. If not, suddenly they have a whole bunch of inventory as salable as yesterday's newspapers.
They are getting help in this effort. Credit Suisse First Boston just published a glowing report on the future of Intersil based on its success at getting its technology included in the 802.11g standard. That is the kind of report that gets read and acted on by high-level executives and the investment community-and that provides endless amusement to the few engineers who can afford such reports or find the time to read them.
These tactics may work, at least for a while. The biggest thing these vendors have going for them is confusion. As long as we stick with the somewhat arbitrary and arcane numbering scheme of the IEEE standards, then we will have to explain why 802.11a is actually faster and newer than 802.11b and how 802.11g somehow fits in between the two. I have a hard enough time keeping them straight, so I can just imagine the confusion felt by someone who just wants to buy something that works with other products and won't be obsolete before he gets it home.
Many technical-product companies have realized this fact. That is why 802.11b is popularly known as WiFi and why other standards, like IEEE 1394, also go by product names, such as Firewire or i.Link. The people at WECA have recognized this and have officially named 802.11a as Wi-Fi5. This will go a long way toward making it palatable to the general public.
I can talk about the shortsightedness of vendors that won't accept 802.11a as a significant enhancement in wireless LANs, but these are the vendors that helped make 802.11b a success to begin with. So, is it fair for someone to come along and take their market away?
The answer to that question is "No," but the corollary is "So what?" Life is messy. Life isn't fair. The curse of technology is that it does not stand still. This is why creativity and change are the lifeblood of technology. There will be pain as each generation is inexorably replaced by the next, but that next generation is inevitably stronger and better. This constant renewal is what makes technology so interesting and vibrant.
But boy, is it messy sometimes.
Larry Mittag is vice president and chief technology officer for Stellcom Inc., a San Diego-based engineering-services company that specializes in wireless devices and applications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.