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Networking firms shout over wireless standards

Participants at this year's trade show are touting new wireless technologies for the nascent home networking market, but the problem is, none of the standards are compatible.

LAS VEGAS--Amid the cacophony on the floor at Comdex, it's no surprise that networking firms aren't listening to each other.

Participants at this year's trade show are touting new wireless technologies for the nascent home networking market. The problem is, the highly competitive market has produced a slew of different wireless technologies--none of which, so far, can work with each other.

Comdex: Closing the
millennium The result is a tug-of-war between competing technological standards in the market to network PCs, printers and even Internet connections in a home.

"It's a mess," Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Mike Wolf said, adding that the situation is one definitely worth cleaning up. The research firm predicts the wireless market will grow from $582 million this year to $1.2 billion worldwide by 2001.

At issue are two competing wireless standards. Companies such as 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Nokia and others support a standard called 802.11B. It provides data transfer rates that are fast, but the technology is expensive. IBM, Motorola, Proxim and others back a standard called HomeRF, which is less expensive in comparison, but isn't as fast.

To add to the confusion, some companies have chosen not to take sides at all. Intel and Compaq, for example, plan to support both standards. The two firms will offer wireless home networking kits that use HomeRF, but in general support 802.11B for business wireless networking needs.

Meanwhile, Diamond Multimedia, which first supported proprietary networking technology from a firm called Alation, is torn between using either standard in next-generation wireless products.

As most of these firms plan to ship wireless home networking technology next year, analysts say the standards war is just beginning. Additionally, they are concerned that consumers could be confused with too many choices, and risk buying networking hardware that is incompatible--a problem that could deter many consumers from even trying the technology in the first place.

NetGear general manager Patrick Lo believes the standard that will survive will be the one with the strongest marketing push.

"Whenever a new technology comes out, it's fragmented. The fact is that everyone says, 'We're the best,'" Lo said. "It will depend on marketing to the masses to determine the de facto standard."

Different companies maintain that the two standards could coexist, as their applications differ. Dan Sweeney, general manager of Intel's home networking division, believes HomeRF technology is best fit for home use, while 802.11B is more suited to business networking. Yet consumers who want faster connections will gravitate to products that support 802.11B, he said.

The 802.11B standard, supported by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), runs at 11 megabits per second (mbps). HomeRF technology, developed by Proxim, typically can shuttle data on a network at 1.6 mbps.

Sweeney said businesses will want a fast standard because often dozens of employees are supported on a single network. For consumers, slower speeds are sufficient to share Internet connections and files. Combined with high-speed Internet access, however, the HomeRF standard offers better support for using the public Internet to make phone calls, he said.

"It's better if there's one standard for both, but not if you have to force-feed technology into the home that doesn't work for the home," Sweeney said.

But 3Com's product manager David Cohen downplays the notion that HomeRF is better for consumers, saying 802.11B also supports Internet telephony. The most important fact, he said, is that the technology is faster.

"HomeRF was designed to go 2 mbps. It's like trying to give a mule steroids," Cohen said. "A mule has a lot of great uses, but if you want fast speeds, you need a thoroughbred."

Companies that support HomeRF are currently petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to increase the amount of "channels," or wireless space, that the company can use. The move would boost HomeRF technology to speeds of 10 mbps.

Although analysts consider the two competing technologies top contenders in the wireless space, they're not the only options on the market. Nortel Networks' NetGear, for example, is supporting proprietary technology from a company called ShareWave. ShareWave, however, plans to make its technology compatible with the 802.11B standard.

Despite the disagreements, the two camps do come together to support another wireless standard called Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a technology that wirelessly connects personal technology, such as cell phones, Palm and Windows CE devices, computers and monitors.

Bluetooth is considered a replacement for networking cords and doesn't compete with either HomeRF or 802.11B. In fact, both sides are working to ensure Bluetooth can communicate with HomeRF and 802.11B technology. For example, a Palm device or a Rio MP3 player with Bluetooth technology built in can wirelessly synchronize its data with a PC, Diamond Multimedia's senior technical marketing engineer Harold Bowen said.