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The next big thing? Try 802.11b

J. William Gurley explains why this relatively unknown networking technology is about to cause a huge stir in the computer industry and beyond.

    Turn the clock to zero, boss
    The rivers wide we'll swim across
    We're starting up a brand new day

    --Sting, "Brand New Day"

    It must be difficult for tech investors to keep their heads up these days.

    Amid the reset in the Nasdaq, the concerns over corporate information-technology spending, the reduction in telecommunication capital expenditures, and the economic difficulties surrounding the enormous third-generation, or 3G, wireless license fees, optimism is likely a fleeting endeavor. But perhaps all we need is a new hero: some innovation to point to that is changing the world; a technology that is about to explode in terms of unit growth; a new beacon of hope.

    One seemingly unlikely candidate for just such a task is a wireless LAN technology that goes by the cryptic name of 802.11b. Also called Wi-Fi by the industry standard group promoting interoperability, 802.11b is the next big thing. Wi-Fi provides for wireless Ethernet transmission primarily between laptops and local access nodes that attach to your standard corporate LAN.

    Originally a second-class citizen in terms of transfer speeds, today's 802.11 products, which transmit in the unlicensed spectrum at 2.5GHz, are capable of speeds of up to 11Mbps--more than enough speed to keep up with the average Internet connection.

    A few years back, wireless LANs appeared to be more research than development. Several scientists wanted to prove "that it could be done," but with transmission speeds many times slower than with wires, it was hard to see why there would be much value. As the technology evolved, corporate users who prefer laptops found it quite convenient to be able to move around the office (or campus) without the need for a physical LAN connection (Dell laptops now ship with Wi-Fi embedded). Later, facilities personnel began to realize the huge benefit of removing the need for wires when provisioning a new office or even adding a new user.

    Universities also became huge consumers of Wi-Fi technology. With thousands of students all clamoring to get on the Internet, no provost could be thrilled with the notion of retrofitting thousands and thousands of CAT5 wires throughout century-old facilities.

    Wouldn't it be much simpler if every student could access the Internet from almost any spot on campus, including the common spaces outside the buildings? The answer is unquestionably Yes, and some of the largest active Wi-Fi networks are now installed at campuses such as Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie-Mellon University.

    Like other dislocating technologies, Wi-Fi is working its way from the office into the home. While home networks are still in their infancy, the benefits of a wireless architecture may be even higher than at the office. Who has the capability to rewire their whole house? And although less obvious, the interest in aesthetics at home heightens the benefit of not stringing wires halfway across the room.

    Also, as we integrate the home entertainment center with the PC, a wireless link is particularly appropriate. Lastly, what if I could carry my laptop home from work, lay it on the kitchen counter and be online instantly? You can today with Wi-Fi.

    From the home we move to public access spaces. Working with companies like Wayport, MobileStar and AirWave Wireless, hundreds and hundreds of airports, hotels and even restaurants are installing Wi-Fi access throughout their facilities. On Jan. 3, Starbucks and Microsoft announced that in early spring, each coffee house would begin offering Wi-Fi access for their patrons. Soon, Wi-Fi access may be like Visa: "anywhere you want to be."

    Once again, the compelling issue is the portability. You can carry one computer from work to home to the airport and even to Starbucks and always reach your data.

    Some start-ups have an even broader ambition to install carrier-class Wi-Fi access by installing access points along rooftops in major metropolitan areas. This type of implementation would stress the limits of today's technology, and business models for this type of access program are specious at best.

    Why it will work
    However, downtown Palo Alto, Calif., is not much different from the Stanford campus when it comes to size and geography. And with the opportunity to be part of the "next big thing," I am sure many ventures will attempt to solve the business model problem.

    In terms of market size, Frost & Sullivan forecasts Wi-Fi manufacturer's revenue of $884 million by 2002, and Cahners In-Stat Group suggests that more than 10 million Wi-Fi products will be installed by the end of this year.

    I will go out on a limb and say that a 200 million-unit market in 10 to 15 years is not unrealistic, primarily because of the pervasiveness of the technology and the ability to provide access at almost every physical destination in the world. Perhaps cellular carriers should be concerned about the effect on the need for 3G services if Wi-Fi access is pervasive.

    Skeptics point to many challenges, including the recently announced security breach in WEP, the encryption protocol associated with 802.11b. Other issues include congestion, interference, and a lack of billing or roaming infrastructure. Still others will point to the emergence of the Bluetooth standard, or to the existence of other home LAN protocols with superior technologies.

    Don't be fooled. The history of technology has proven again and again that if a certain open architecture gains escape velocity there is no turning back. The cost declines brought on by ramping unit volumes alone are enough to thwart any competitive threat.

    Wi-Fi has all the makings of a disruptive and explosive technology: huge growth, a strong value proposition, multiple and expanding uses, industry standardization, and global standardization. There are flaws, but none is insurmountable, and none is nearly large enough to be anything more than a speed bump with respect to the billions of dollars of research and development already pointed into this space.

    Lastly and most importantly, there is plenty of running room as we move from the corporation to the home to the campus to the airport to the hotel and potentially to a carrier-class level.

    This truly is the next big thing.

    J. William Gurley 2001. All rights reserved. Above the Crowd is a monthly publication focusing on the evolution and economics of high-technology business and strategy. This column can also be found on CNET online and in Fortune magazine. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable but is not necessarily complete, and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Any opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. The author is a general partner of Benchmark Capital, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. Benchmark Capital and its affiliated companies and/or individuals may, from time to time, have positions in the securities discussed herein. ABOVE THE CROWD is a service mark of J. William Gurley.

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