SAN JOSE – Twenty-five years ago a couple dozen engineers gathered in a hotel meeting room to define a wireless technology with the obscure name IEEE 802.11. Today the resulting Wi-Fi is a data network that rivals cellular, found in notebooks, tablets, hotel rooms, corner cafés and even airplanes.
It’s a story of people and their products that made the unlikely journey from crude prototypes to widespread popularity. After an unlikely start in Washington D.C., the story shifts to the Netherlands and ultimately Cupertino, California, and a meeting with Steve Jobs.
It begins in May 1985 when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission released a ruling opening up spectrum in the so-called junk bands including a chunk around 2.4 GHz. Don Johnson, a corporate R&D manager for NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, saw the ruling and had an idea for wireless retail point-of-sale terminals.
The systems could differentiate NCR from its larger rival IBM in a core market for the company founded in 1884 as the National Cash Register Co. Johnson gave seed money to a small team of about 15 engineers at an NCR office in the Netherlands and asked them to build a prototype to test the idea.
“Many of our customers were department stores who wanted to change their layout regularly without drilling holes in the floors, so if we could make the systems wireless, they would be more flexible,” said Victor Hayes, a protocol and standards specialist and one of the first members of the wireless team in Utrecht.
If the wireless technology was based on an open standard it would be an even bigger coup. Data from NCR’s customers typically wound up in an IBM mainframe, so NCR engineers like Hayes spent lots of time supporting a raft of IBM communications protocols.
“We were usually followers, so when IBM came out with a new terminal we analyzed it and followed it -- in this case we wanted to be a leader,” said Hayes who co-authored a book on his experiences with Wi-Fi.
Next page: Filling a vacant spot
Attending the first IEEE 802.11 meeting are (from left) Bruce Tuch (NCR); Michael Masleid, Secretary (back row, Inland Steel, now Arcelormittal); Vic Hayes, Chair (front row, NCR); Donald Johnson (back row, NCR); Orest Storoshchuck, host of the meeting (front row, General Motors Oshawa); Kiwi Smith (back row, NCR); Jim Neeley, Vice Chair (IBM); Larry VanderJagt (KII) and Jonathan Cheah (Hughes Networks).