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Networking

Creating a truly 'open' wireless network

Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos says several technical drawbacks to Wi-Fi must be overcome if it's to become the next big thing.

We've come a long way from the days when callers had to go stand next to a window in order to use a mobile phone indoors.

Not only can wireless signals now penetrate buildings, handsets are smaller, they have color displays, the batteries last longer, and some phones even take pictures.

Despite the real value (and impressive engineering) in all those developments, people aren't really satisfied. Could a clearly inferior technology that's known as Wi-Fi change all that?

Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, is being used to provide high-speed Internet connections in coffee shops, airports, hotels, and whole cities such as Paris and Manhattan. But these "hot spots," as they're called, can't match the reliability of the wireless phone networks. Indeed, anyone who has set up a Wi-Fi network at home knows the frustration of inexplicable losses in coverage, even at short range.

What makes Wi-Fi so interesting is not the current state of the technology or the fact that people can send e-mail while sipping cappuccino. It is its potential as an open wireless network--and by that I mean open to innovation.

Innovations happen when people have the opportunity to add value; the number one proof point being the Internet. The charm and marvel of the Net is that anyone can hook up a server and start a business. All you need is an IP address, and there are no barriers to that--no business agreements to negotiate, no modifications required to the network itself.

By comparison, the Internet has come a long way, too. It has become sufficiently reliable and responsive so that people now routinely go online to pay bills and purchase plane tickets. Businesses that used to require dedicated networks are using the Internet to create virtual private networks at a much lower cost.

Anyone who has set up a Wi-Fi network at home knows the frustration of inexplicable losses in coverage, even at short range.
The same pattern is likely to emerge in Wi-Fi. But there are technical drawbacks that must be overcome, including poor reliability and less-than-optimal connection speeds. (Sounds just like the early days of the Net, doesn't it?) Worse, you can't easily roam from one network to another.

If you're like me, you end up with multiple subscriptions, which is costly and inconvenient. In fact, that fragmentation--each provider trying to own your relationship with the Internet--could kill Wi-Fi before it really gets started. Not only are the cumulative costs too high, but the winner-takes-all mentality is counterproductive--it stifles the kind of "network effect" you see when, for instance, all phones work together.

Despite these imposing hurdles, I'm still excited about Wi-Fi's potential. I'm convinced that people are going to do voice over IP (VoIP) through Wi-Fi networks. And once Wi-Fi-enabled phones become available--the first models have already been announced--we'll begin to see a range of voice-related innovations emerge.

Imagine, for instance, that you're on your mobile, and just as you're leaving a voice message for someone, the connection drops. You shouldn't have to redial and start over. Your phone should continue to take the message, hold it in memory and complete delivery as soon as a connection can be re-established.

That's the kind of thing that will happen on Wi-Fi networks. It's a trivial challenge because the underlying protocols assume that the network isn't all that reliable, and applications are written to deal with that. As a result, a series of Wi-Fi-related innovations are on the horizon.

• Conference calls that, if you came in late or simply wanted to hear something again, you could rewind--like TiVo for teleconferencing.

• Voice mail you could actually sort, label, file or even forward to someone outside your carrier's network.

• Voice mail attachments that enable the recipient to instantly see what you're talking about, whether it's an image or a document.

There are technical drawbacks that must be overcome, including poor reliability and less-than-optimal connection speeds.
While the quality, reliability and security of today's mobile voice networks are far superior to what you get with Wi-Fi, that will change over time. An open wireless network will spur more innovations than a closed network.

The Internet was technically inferior to the proprietary networks that came before it, but it was open. That attracted innovators whose best ideas, in turn, attracted millions of users and changed the way we live. That, in turn, drove big improvements in quality.

For Wi-Fi to really take off, the single most important improvement would be the ability to use any hot spot you encounter and have the operator automatically get compensated. What I'd really like--and what I think most people would really like--is to be able to say to someone, "Take care of my network connectivity for me. Make it seamless. Don't make me switch manually from Wi-Fi to GPRS or some other standard."

My fondest hope is that today's wireless carriers will recognize the full potential of Wi-Fi and begin to overlay their networks on top of these open wireless networks. The carrier that lets me seamlessly roam from one to the other will ultimately win my business. More important, it will lead the way to a wealth of innovations.